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Wisconsin consumers who have bought dairy products in recent years have until the end of the month to claim a portion of a $52 million class-action lawsuit settlement against the nation’s largest dairy producers.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in 2011 against food companies and dairy producer groups including Dairy Farmers of America, Land O’ Lakes, Cooperatives Working Together, Dairylea Cooperative, Agri-Mark Inc. and National Milk Producers Federation.

The suit alleged that the defendants engaged in a nationwide conspiracy to limit milk production by prematurely slaughtering hundreds of thousands of dairy cows.

“The biggest dairy producers in the country, responsible for almost 70% of the nation’s milk supply, conspired together in a classic price-fixing scheme,” Steve Berman, managing partner of the Hagens Berman law firm in San Francisco, said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of individual consumers based on research from an animal rights group.

Under the settlement, consumers in Wisconsin and 15 other states who bought dairy products from 2003 to the present are eligible for a portion of the $52 million.

The products include milk and other fresh-milk items such as cottage cheese, cream cheese or sour cream sold in Arizona, California, the District of Columbia, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

To participate in the settlement, you can submit a simple online claim form, opting for cash, with no proof of purchase required. The amount you could receive may be $20, or it may be higher or lower depending on the number of claims received. Organizations, such as churches or nonprofits, could receive several hundred dollars.

It only takes a minute to complete the online form, available at www.boughtmilk.com — or you can get the form online and mail it to Fresh Milk Products Antitrust Litigation, P.O. Box 43430, Providence, RI 02940-3430.

You must have purchased dairy products for your own consumption, or that of your household or organization — and not for resale.

Already, about 2.5 million claims have been made.

“Class members who have filed valid and timely claims will receive cash payments distributed directly into an online account of their choosing, e.g. Amazon, PayPal or Google Wallet,” according to the settlement website.

“Any remaining funds may be distributed in a second round using grocery loyalty cards to be automatically loaded with a fixed amount … under no circumstances will the money go back to the defendants,” the settlement noted.

The agreement with the defendants releases them from the litigation. National Milk Producers Federation, which says it represents about 70% of Wisconsin’s dairy farmers, said it and Cooperatives Working Together admitted no wrongdoing.

The settlement was the “most sensible” way to end the litigation, the NMPF said, adding that the activity at issue — called the CWT dairy herd retirement program — has been terminated.

An analysis by a University of Missouri dairy economist found that between 2004 and 2008, the herd retirement program added an average 59 cents per hundred pounds to the price that farmers receive for their milk. That price has varied widely in recent years, from about $13 to $24 per hundred pounds.

The price that Wisconsin dairy farmers receive for their milk plummeted in 2015 and, in some cases, remains below a profitable level.

Dairy farmers face tough decisions on herd sizes because producing more milk lowers their cost of production, on a per unit basis, but adds to an oversupply problem and further depresses prices.

Many farmers seek operating efficiencies to squeeze out a profit, or lose less money, rather than reducing the number of cows they milk.

“The way to get more profit out of your herd is to increase economies of scale,” said John Holevoet, government relations director for the Dairy Business Association, based in De Pere.

Dairy products, like other agricultural commodities, are globally traded — meaning prices are determined by many factors including supply and demand in other countries.

Holevoet said he doubted that the herd retirement program boosted farm milk prices much.

The $52 million settlement could put a small dent in the profit of dairy producer groups named in the lawsuit.

“I see very little impact for individual farmers,” Holevoet said.

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