Nov. 4, 2005 Every senator at the Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee hearing Friday said they wanted to do right by the V.I. dairy industry.
David Schuster, president, St. Croix Island Dairies, testified, if the government does not get it right soon, there may be no dairy industry to save.
He said the high cost of doing business on the Virgin Islands was putting a squeeze on the local industry. He cited utility costs, insurance premiums and fixed costs. He also said outside competition was dumping its product on the Virgin Islands causing the local dairies even more financial stress.
St. Thomas Dairies would like to regain the business it once had with the cruise industry.
Unfortunately, that is not as simple as having a quality product at a competitive price. Fred Hintz, president of St. Thomas Dairies, said last year his dairy lost a million dollars a year in business with the cruise ship industry because the Center for Disease Control said V.I. milk could no longer be purchased for cruise lines. The reasoning was that Island Dairies milk was not certified Grade A milk. The CDC said all milk purchased at U.S. ports for the cruise lines had to be Grade A.
Hintz said he did not see the logic in this decision. He said, "Any cruise line can go somewhere like Barbados, where they don't even know what Grade A means, and buy milk."
However, Island Dairies and St. Thomas Dairies, both independent companies having the same parent company — Trans-Caribbean Dairies have been working to get the Grade A label on their milk.
Hintz said as far back as 1983 his operation had been inspected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and told that its milk would qualify as Grade A.
The problem, according to Hintz, is that the V.I. government has not been able to get up and running a system, including a milk testing laboratory with train personnel, to certify V.I. milk.
There has been a controversy over whether the lab, which many hoped earlier this year would be running by now, should be located on St. Croix or St. Thomas. (See "St. Croix Lands Milk Certification Lab").
Neither Hintz or Schultz seemed to care where the lab was located, but appeared exasperated that it was taking so long to be set up.
Doane Darian testified for the Health Department. Just over two weeks ago, she was made the Program Administrator for the Division of Environmental Health and Milk Rating Officer (trainee).
She said it would probably be another 18 months before the lab could be functioning.
Hintz and Schuster are frustrated that their work may lead nowhere. They were instrumental in pushing for the senate passing the V.I. Pasteurized Milk Ordinance of 2004.
But the FDA has changed its rules and, even with the ordinance the way it is and a milk certification lab operating, Island Dairies may not be able to get the Grade A rating.
Hintz was notified Wednesday in a letter from Leonard Reed, director of V.I. Environmental Health, that because of FDA regulations, for Island Dairies to get a Grade A certification, he must "discontinue the use of butter as a fat substitute component; the proper substitute ingredient should be cream."
Hintz said, "There is no way that will happen at Island Dairies." St. Thomas Dairy's milk is reconstituted milk made from powder ingredients imported from Ireland and Canada.
St. Croix Dairies does produce fresh milk from cows from which cream can be obtained. However, Schuster said it would never be produced in the quantity needed to reconstitute enough milk to supply cruise ships.
The purpose of the hearing was to get an update on the milk grading lab and to consider the bill No. 26-0159, sponsored by Sen. Usie Richards, chairman of the committee, to amend title 19 Virgin Islands Code and enact the Diary Industry Regulation Act of 2005.
Darian came with recommendations concerning definitions of what would be considered adulterated milk, how milk plants should be permitted and how they could be closed down if not operating according to regulations.
Lawrence Lewis, commissioner of agriculture, also offered a recommendation concerning the regulating of a "pull date" for the shelf life of imported milk.
But the major recommendations came from industry representatives. Hintz recommended repealing the V.I. Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. He said many things needed redefined. He especially was looking for a milk certification label that would certify milk as healthy to drink, but not necessarily Grade A. He said using butter in the process might keep milk from being labeled Grade A, but it was not a public health issue.
Richards offered an amendment to his bill that would allow the certification of milk as Certified Milk and another one concerning the labeling of milk as recombined, reconstituted.
The amendments passed and the committee voted to pass the bill onto the Rules Committee for its meeting on Tuesday.
Richards said he hoped to get a forum together of interested parties on Monday to discuss how the government could best help the V.I. dairy industry.
Present at the hearing were Sens. Richards, Liston A. Davis, Craig Barshinger, Pedro "Pete" Encarnacion, and Neville James. Absent were Sens. Lorraine L. Berry and Norman Jn Baptiste.
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