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A federal judge in Vermont is considering moving forward with a partial settlement of an anti-trust lawsuit in which national dairy processor Dean Foods would pay some northeast dairy farmers $30 million.

But U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss said Friday she may defer a decision on part of the settlement that would require Dean Foods of Dallas to change its milk-buying practices in the region for 30 months by buying milk from independent farmers, a controversial provision that the plaintiffs say would jump start competition but a national dairy cooperative says would harm some farmers.

"I am likely to sever the settlement," Reiss told lawyers during a hearing on Friday.

Farmers have complained for years that Dean, the cooperative Dairy Farmers of America and its marketing affiliate Dairy Marketing Services have come to dominate the milk-buying market and have held down prices paid to farmers.

By agreeing to the settlement, Dean Foods does not admit any liability and "continues to maintain that it has not broken any laws," Dean Foods' attorney Paul Friedman said Friday.

It settles a class action lawsuit filed in 2009, which means 5,000 to 10,000 farmers could get a share of the settlement.

During the more than two-hour hearing, both sides urged Reiss to approve the deal, which plaintiff lawyer Kit Pierson said was "reached after extraordinarily difficult negotiations with Dean Foods."


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