MADISON - Terms like “almond milk,” “soy cheese” and “walnut burger” would be banned under legislation Republican state lawmakers are pursuing.

“Walk into most grocery stores and the 2 percent milk will be sitting next to soy milk and almond milk,” Republican Sen. Howard Marklein of Spring Green said Thursday at a public hearing on the bills he’s sponsoring.

He noted plant-based Impossible Burgers often are listed on the burger section of restaurant menus.

“This is not right,” he said.

The measures are meant to help struggling Wisconsin farmers, particularly dairy farmers who have seen a wave of bankruptcies amid low prices and trade wars. Dairy farmers have long contended alternative beverages have cut into their sales.

But even if the legislation becomes law, dairy farmers would not immediately get what they want. The ban on labels such as “rice milk” and “soy cheese” would take effect only if 10 other states adopted similar legislation.

The push comes amid a similar national effort. Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin has backed federal legislation on the issue and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at a stop in Madison this month expressed sympathy for banning such terms.

Senate Bill 466 would ban labeling or selling a beverage as milk unless it came from cows, goats or certain other animals. The ban would take effect only if 10 of 15 states mentioned in the bill had approved similar bans by 2031.

 That provision was included to try to make sure the legislation is in keeping with the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, which leaves the regulation of interstate business activity to Congress, not states.

The states that would have to pass similar bans are mostly in the Midwest. They are: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Similarly, Senate Bill 463 would ban labeling or selling a product as cream, yogurt or cheese unless it included dairy. That measure would also take effect only if 10 other states put in place similar bans, under an amendment to the legislation backed by the bill’s authors.

Senate Bill 464 would ban labeling or selling a product as meat, bacon or similar term unless it included the flesh of an animal. That legislation does not include a requirement that other states adopt similar bans because 11 other states have already done so, according to Marklein and other backers.  

Under the bills, those who sold products as “soy milk," “soy bacon” or the like could be fined $100 to $1,000 and jailed for up to nine months for a first offense. Sen. Chris Larson, a Democrat from Milwaukee, called such punishments too severe for “a new crime of having a grocer putting almond milk on the shelf.”

“That’s something people should be locked away for?” he asked at the public hearing.

Responded Marklein: “There’s got to be teeth in it or otherwise it’s just a piece of paper.”

To become law, the legislation would need to be approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said he liked what he's heard about the bill but wants to talk to Marklein about it. 

"I would support the dairy industry a hundred percent and if this bill would have an effect on supporting Wisconsin's dairy industry, it would be great," Fitzgerald told reporters. "It sounds like a good idea to me."