The political clout of California’s $3.7 billion dairy industry was in evidence Wednesday when the Senate Agriculture and Water Resources Committee rejected a pro-consumer bill that set calcium requirements in accordance with standards set for a federally mandated nutrition program.

Senate Bill 2164 was introduced in response to the findings of nutrition experts that the calcium content of most California milk is essentially the same as the calcium content of less-expensive milk sold outside California.

The findings refute deceptive nutrition claims used by the state’s dairy industry to justify anti-competitive milk-marketing rules that protect the industry from competition and force consumers to pay some of the highest milk prices in the nation.

“Unfortunately, the $3.7 billion dairy industry’s political muscle prevailed in Sacramento, and that hurts California consumers,” said Audrie Krause, executive director of the consumer coalition Mad About Milk.

The bill had previously been approved on a 6-1 vote by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, whose members aren’t as closely tied to the state’s politically powerful dairy industry.

California law currently bans the sale of milk meeting federal standards, prohibits retail grocers from selling milk at a discount, and effectively imposes tariffs on out-of-state milk brought into California for processing. The rules protect the state’s dairy industry from competition, and the industry protects the rules with misleading and deceptive claims that California milk has more calcium.

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“SB 2164 called the dairy industry’s bluff,” said Krause. “By opposing legislation that actually sets minimum standards for calcium, the industry’s true motive for supporting the state’s anti-competitive market rules are exposed — to maintain artificially high prices and limit consumer choice.”

Despite the dairy industry’s deceptive claims, state law doesn’t specify how much calcium is required in milk. Nutrition experts have determined that nearly 90 percent of the milk sold in California has essentially the same amount of calcium as the less-expensive milk sold in other states.

In fact, a 1992 study by the California Department of Food and Agriculture concluded that for whole, fat-free and 2 percent milk, there is virtually no difference in calcium levels between California milk and the milk sold in the rest of the country.

“Every day, almost 270 million Americans in 49 other states drink the milk California is prohibiting,” said Krause. “It just doesn’t make sense to prevent consumers from choosing this milk if they see fit.”

SB 2164 is a pro-consumer bill aimed at expanding the choice of milk products eligible for purchase by Californians participating in the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. The bill was introduced by Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Marina del Rey) and Sen. Joseph Dunn (D-Santa Ana).