SAN FRANCISCO - The California Supreme Court has ruled that all milk sold in the state must continue to meet stringent enrichment standards for calcium and protein.
For 38 years, California has been the only state to enforce standards that are more strict than those of the federal government. Supporters of the standards, including state officials, in-state dairy processors and nutritionists, say milk is good for the body, but California milk is better.
Critics say California's standards are different - but not necessarily better - and price-minded consumers deserve a choice. In addition, they say, California processors use the standards to stymie out-of-state competitors.
The state Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision Monday, said the federal regulations could not be considered an alternative to California's tough standards, even if the alternative was labeled.
"It's wonderful news. This means California consumers can continue to enjoy their richer-tasting and more nutritious milk," said Leslie Butler, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis who has written extensively on the dairy industry.
Nonfat milk sold in California must include 8.2 grams of protein and 285 milligrams of calcium for every 8-ounce glass, up from the federal standards of 7.5 grams of protein and 261 milligrams of calcium.
The court ruled against Shamrock Foods Co. of Phoenix, Ariz., which in 1996 was accused of selling 70,000 gallons of milk in California that did not meet the state's standards. The company, which has long fought California regulators, was fined $696,000.
But an appeals court in San Diego last year overturned the ruling and said dairy processors could fall short of California's standards.
Monday's ruling "is bad news for consumers," said Audrie Krause, executive director of Mad About Milk, a California-based coalition that includes out-of-state dairies, a few California dairy processors and consumer interests. The coalition in principally funded by Shamrock.
"This means milk prices here will continue to be higher than necessary, and California will continue to be the only state in the nation that does not give consumers a choice of milk products," Krause said. "And all to protect its dairy industry from competition."
Both sides agree the enrichment standards cost Californians more than 10 cents per gallon, although Krause said the difference could be more pronounced in some states. But they disagreed on the effect of the standards.
Krause said consumers would drink more milk if it were cheaper and reap more health benefits.
But Michael Boccadoro of Californians for Nutritious Milk, a coalition that includes about 10 in-state dairy processors, said people would drink less milk if it didn't taste as good.
"This makes no sense," Boccadoro said. "Why take calcium out of milk when kids are not getting enough of it?"
According to the Dairy Council of California, milk products provide essential vitamins and minerals and are the best source of calcium, which is critical to bone growth and can help prevent osteoporosis.
Dairy is a $4.3 billion-a-year industry in California and the state's leading agricultural product.