Panhandle Dairy Farmers Sue Florida Over 'Scary' Milk Labeling Requirement

Nov 20, 2014

Paul and Mary Lou Wesselhoeft stand with Institute for Justice attorney Justin Pearson in front of the federal courthouse in Tallahassee. They filed suit on Nov. 20, 2014.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU News

The owners of a Florida Panhandle dairy farm are fighting in federal court against a label the state requires on their milk. Ocheesee Creamery has been trying for years to sell all-natural skim milk without having to affix what the owners say are misleading words.

Mary Lou and Paul Wesselhoeft own Ocheesee Creamery, a Calhoun County dairy operation. For years they sold skim milk without adding a synthetic vitamin. But the state government classifies their all-natural variety as a “milk product” with “vitamins removed” and requires labeling as such.

Mary Lou says the label is "scary" and refuses to use it.

“All of our customers knew what it was, they were not confused, in fact they thought it was the best skim milk around,"  she says. "But now the government is asking us to quit calling skim milk “skim milk,” and all we’re asking is to be able to be honest with our customers."

A young cow sits in the shade of a tree on the Ocheesee Creamery farm in Calhoun County, Florida.
Credit Jessica Palombo / WFSU News

Ocheesee hired the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public interest law firm, to file the suit. Their lawyer, Justin Pearson, says the label violates their First Amendment rights because the government is compelling them to lie. 

In response to the suit, a Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services spokeswoman released this statement: "We have not yet received a copy of the lawsuit, but we look forward to reviewing it. It is the responsibility of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to safeguard consumers, and that includes ensuring all milk meets quality standards required by federal law."

Ocheesee creates its skim milk by removing cream from pasteurized cows' milk. Most of the naturally occurring Vitamin A is in the cream, and state requires products labeled as "skim milk" to be infused with synthetic Vitamin A. But the Wesselhoefts say doing so would go against their all-natural philosophy. 

The couple is not seeking monetary damages, though they say their business has taken quite a hit. They are asking federal Judge Robert Hinkle to rule they can continue selling skim milk without the "milk product" label.