Consumers tell FDA: ‘don’t mess with our milk’

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April 23, 2013

What do you do if you’re the great and powerful American Dairy Industry and you want to make a major change in U.S. Food and Drug Administration food-labeling regulations, only to have your proposal met with an uproar from consumers? Well, you can then try and soft-pedal the actual aim of your petition   – with a little help from your friends at the FDA of course!

Last Monday the regulatory agency posted a page at its web site to address the “confusion” on the issue. This new ‘education’ page, headed “FDA wants your opinion on dairy-products labels,” attempts to explain what the petition is all about by including a lot of rhetoric from the dairy industry itself – for example, “reduced calorie” labeling is “unattractive to children,” and  updating the milk standard “would promote honesty and fair dealing.” The page then asks the public to offer comments on such questions as whether the proposed change will create an “increased burden for consumers” who want to know what their milk might be sweetened with.

So what’s behind the FDA’s transparent attempt to defend the petition against being ‘misunderstood’ by consumers? The answer can be found in the trade pub Food Business News, which quotes International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) spokesperson Peggy Armstrong as saying that the petition has “drawn some negative feedback due to misunderstanding” – an apparent reference to more than 33,0000 negative comments on the petitions filed at the site.

Now granted, there has been a good deal of confusion about the purpose of this petition, which attempts to change the “standard of identity” for milk (and certain other dairy products). But one thing is clear from the responses – the fact that many people don’t want either the FDA or the industry to “mess with our milk,” as one writer put it, and just intuitively don’t seem to like the idea of “aspartame” being connected with “milk” in the same sentence.

But while supposedly attempting to dispel whatever “confusion” may exist over the petition, neither the FDA nor the IDFA  have bothered to inform us about what the really big story here is – one that I wrote about at the end of last month.

As I noted then, the most alarming consequence for parents should the FDA approve the petition — and what’s in it for the dairy industry — is that by changing the standard of identity for milk, in effect the FDA will now be granting permission for aspartame-sweetened flavored milk to be offered in the National School Lunch Program and the National School Breakfast Program, which it is currently not.

Existing regulations mandate that these two federally supported nutrition programs must include meals that offer eight ounces of milk. And that milk must be the kind described in the milk “standard of identity.” By changing that standard, I was informed by Cary Frye, IDFA vice president of regulatory affairs, it would mean that artificially sweetened milk would then “meet the definition” required to potentially be served up to more than 31 million kids a day.

The “confusion” alluded to by the FDA stemmed from many people’s mistaken belief that aspartame is not now allowed in milk, and would be under the proposed change, The fact is, however, that nothing currently stops manufacturers from adding aspartame to flavored milk to their heart’s content – just as long as the front label contains some additional words to “signal the presence of artificial sweeteners” such as  “reduced calorie milk” or “no added sugar” or perhaps even  “dairy beverage.” And that’s where the new identity standard would come in, both knocking out the restriction against allowing artificially sweetened milk in those school programs and eliminating the front label “signal” (although aspartame would still be listed on the ingredients label).

But even if you don’t understand all the technical aspects of what a “standard of identity” is or the basics of food labeling laws, the thought of every child who participates in the National School Lunch or Breakfast Program being offered  aspartame-sweetened milk on a daily basis should be enough of a reason to add your comments on this petition before the May 21 deadline. You can click here to go to the FDA site and tell them what you think.

Besides protecting kids from being served a neurotoxic chemical in their milk at school, it’s a chance for you to help “educate” both the FDA and the dairy  industry in the kind of standards that consumers expect them to maintain.