WASHINGTON — Ten Washington, D.C. area residents filed a class-action lawsuit against milk suppliers and retailers Thursday, asking that labels be required on milk sold here warning consumers of the effects of lactose intolerance.
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The Washington-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates a vegan diet, is paying for the lawsuit. The 10 plaintiffs claim they have suffered cramps, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal problems from consuming milk.
Lactose intolerance is the inability to fully digest lactose, the sugar found in milk.
Among the plaintiffs recruited by the Physicians Committee are seven African-Americans, who tend to have higher rates of lactose intolerance. The group includes a 7-year-old African-American boy.
The lawsuit names the Giant of Maryland LLC and Safeway Inc. supermarket chains; Horizon Organic; Dean Foods Co.; Nestle Holdings Inc.; Farmland Dairies LLC; Shenandoah’s Pride LLC; Stonyfield Farm Inc.; and Cloverland Farms Dairy Inc. They all declined comment or did not return phone messages Thursday.
“Lactose intolerance is very prevalent in persons of color,” said Milton Mills, a black physician who is lead plaintiff in the suit. “As a physician, I see people who are dealing with conditions related to their inability to digest lactose. They’re led to believe they need to include dairy for health benefits. That is not true.”
Mills, 47, said that when he was in his early 20s, he got sick every afternoon after consuming frozen yogurt. He thought he might be seriously ill, until his mother told him he just had a problem digesting milk.
Susan Ruland, vice president for communications at the International Dairy Foods Association, ridiculed the suit.
“It’s just another attempt on the part of an animal rights group to attack dairy and milk products,” she said. “They’re trying a new strategy of suing people right and left. It’s unfortunate to see that when it has to do with an issue of nutrition.”
Mills, who serves as the Physician Committee’s associate director of preventive medicine, said that his focus has been exclusively on human health.
“Obviously, I don’t want to see people beat up animals, but animal rights is not my motivation for being involved,” he said. Mills said he became a vegetarian at the age of 16 because he was convinced that was a healthier way to eat.
Ruland acknowledged that minority groups have higher rates of lactose intolerance, but said that often a person can overcome the problem by gradually increasing dairy consumption.
She said that was a worthwhile goal, because of the healthy ingredients in milk such as calcium, protein and Vitamin D.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all people who buy milk in Washington, D.C., seeking a required label such as: “Warning — If you experience diarrhea or stomach cramps after consuming milk, you may be lactose intolerant. Check with your physician.”
The suit asks for no more than $100,000 in total damages for the 10 plaintiffs.
In June, the Physicians Committee filed a suit claiming the dairy industry and several food companies were falsely claiming that dairy consumption can help people lose weight. That suit is still pending.
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