One elected official who has been in the news cycle non-stop since the election is Jose Mai. From the opening of the cattle trade, to the opening of the free zone, to the proposed ban on certain dairy products - Mai has been making headlines regularly.

And he's not shy about it - today he was on the ground at Western Dairies' processing plant in Spanish Lookout.

After he dropped his bombshell announcement that there would be less imported dairy products on the market two weeks ago, he is living up to his campaign by encouraging Belizeans to buy local.

The press was invited to accompany the Minister on a tour of the factory, and Courtney Menzies has the story.

From the farm to the table takes on a new meaning in Spanish Lookout Community. The residents are the farmers, producers, and manufacturers of our country's dairy products.

The cattle on these farms are bred and raised specifically for milking. One farmer demonstrated the special equipment he has to speed up the milking process allowing up to 45 cows to be milk within the hour. And the cost of the equipment pays for itself, since dairy is a lucrative business.

But before that milk reaches your bowl of cereal, it needs to be processed. Western Dairies does the pasteurization and packaging at their Spanish Lookout plant.

And of course, that milk is also turned into various cheeses mozzarella, cheddar, pepper jack, and more that is also made and packaged by the company.

But that's not all, Western Dairies is especially known for their ice cream and Delight ice cream bars.

Not to mention their Chillers brand juices and milks and their sour cream.

So, they make it all, and clearly have the monopoly on local dairy products. But that does not mean there is no competition.

Belizeans have long strayed towards the imported milks and cheese LALA, Kraft, Velveeta and the ever-loved Happy Cow.

Because the market is saturated with the imported products, the local ones do not sell, and in the last House Meeting, Agriculture Minister planned to rectify this. First, he announced an importation ban, but later conceded to a restriction of the international products. And in his quest to promote local products, he took a tour of Western Dairies' factory today.

And after the tour, he was expected to answer the tough questions that is, why Belizeans simply prefer the imported products over those that are made right here in the country.

Hon. Jose Mai - Minister of Agriculture
"From what we saw just now, fresh milk compared to imported LALA milk, there was not a big difference, there was not that disparity and you saw that. The price is almost the same. Where we have a problem is in the shelf life and again, we have to accept that there is a difference in the shelf life, the important thing here though is to understand and let the Belizean public understand that you could never compare a natural milk with a processed milk. Natural milk that we saw here today has no preservatives, it is natural, it is healthy, and it is better, health-wise for our Belizean people."

Milk and cheese, he explained, that you see sitting on the shelves in stores instead of in the refrigerator have artificial preservatives, allowing them to survive in room temperature.

Another issue Belizeans find is that the local products, specifically milk, is more expensive than its imported counterparts. Minister Mai explained the reason for this.

Hon. Jose Mai
"When you look at the unfair competition, when we look at processed milks coming into the country, paying zero duty, and in 2018/2019, certain companies were not even paying GST. They were qualifying the imported milk as fresh milk, which it is not, because fresh milk shelf life is between fourteen days and a little bit more but processed milk can last you on the shelf in a special pack for months. So, it cannot be considered to be fresh milk. So they're not paying GST, they're not paying duty, coming into the country when the local processors, the manufacturer here are not only milk processors, not only the dairy industry, but you have small, medium sized enterprises that do juices, bottled juices, bottle coconut water, these people are paying duties on all the equipment used to process they're also paying duties on the packaging and labelling, duties and GST, so clearly it is unfair to our local manufacturers."

And the ministry plans to combat this by proposing to remove GST and import duties from bottling and packaging equipment, which will in turn allow the price to be lowered, giving it a chance at competing against the imported product. In addition, Minister Mai said that while you'll have your imported products, you will have to pay extra for it.

Hon. Jose Mai
"If you want imported, you will have to pay for it. We are proposing, and I'm hoping to get support from my Cabinet colleague, which I'm sure we will, to enforce the law by the imported paying GST, one and two, we also propose to clarify that, besides the GST, to put duties on imported products that compete and make our local product more competitive. Western Dairies produces a value of 3.2 million dollars in milk. So, we're importing 21.8 [million dollars' worth] but we're only producing 3.2, it means that we can grow this industry. In terms of cheese, this company only produces 1.9 million when we import 13 million. It means that we can grow this industry."

But Mai also said that this won't be forever, and the ministry is planning to revisit these measures once they see favourable results.

Hon. Jose Mai
"As soon as we see the stocks that you witness going down we will again review the suspension and, let me tell you, we have not stopped the importation of LALA milk nor any other milk, we are just controlling it, we are managing it, we are watching the stocks in the markets, we are looking at the stocks that they have in cheese here, we are looking at the movement of milk out of this place, we are working with the local producers so once we see that we are okay, then we make adjustments to the importation."

According to Western Dairies' chairman, if there is a great increase in demand, the company will be able to meet it. He explained that in 2020, they were required to reduce their production by 20% because there was too much of a surplus.

Channel 7