IN 2009, the International Dairy Foods Assn. (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) petitioned the Food & Drug Administration to amend the standard of identity for milk to include non-nutritive sweeteners (low-calorie or no-calorie sweeteners used as sugar substitutes) like Splenda or aspartame.
They also petitioned FDA not to require the milk to be labeled as "reduced calorie," arguing that the label could repel milk's largest consumer: children.
Four years later, FDA has opened the petition for a public comment period -- and unknowingly caused quite a stir. At first, media outlets had reported that the two groups were petitioning to not include the non-nutritive sweeteners on the label.
NMPF quickly released a statement clarifying its intentions. In the statement posted on its website, NMPF said FDA requires that ingredients such as non-nutritive sweeteners be included in the ingredient list on the package label. Milk would be under the same requirements.
The confusion arose when the groups asked FDA to ease the rules on labeling the milk as low calorie. The media outlets were combining the two separate parts of the petition, which made it appear that the dairy industry was trying to deceive the consumer, according to the statement.
Milk has important nutrients, especially for children and young adults. Chocolate milk is very popular among these age groups and also provides essential nutrients. The childhood obesity issue in the U.S., however, has schools revisiting whether flavored milk, because of its higher caloric value, should be on school menus. Some schools have banned flavored milk but subsequently found that milk consumption decreased significantly.
NMPF said the petition was originally filed to address the growing issues surrounding both caloric limits and added sugars for flavored milk sold in schools. IDFA and NMPF sought to provide chocolate milk drinkers with the same taste of the original product while reducing the number of calories through use of a non-nutritive sweetener.
The food and beverage industry has developed a number of FDA-approved non-nutritive sweeteners that are used in many other products, including ice cream, but the standard of identity for milk has not been modified to reflect these developments.
As for the second part of the petition regarding the reduced calorie labeling, the groups believe easing the rules would promote honesty and fair dealing by creating consistency in the names of flavored milk products.
According to the original petition to FDA, the limitation on the use of sweeteners contained in the standard of identity for milk creates the potential for consumer confusion.
The current milk standard permits nutritive sweeteners to be used as an optional ingredient for flavoring milk. However, the groups said the standard prevents food processors from marketing flavored milk made with non-nutritive sweeteners without further qualification (e.g., "reduced-calorie chocolate milk"). They believe that use of the phrase "reduced calorie" is not attractive to children and contributed to the overall decline in milk consumption.
In the petition, the groups said, unlike with ice cream, consumers do not recognize milk as a product that necessarily contains sugar.
According to IDFA and NMPF, when FDA amended the ice cream standard to include any "safe and suitable sweetener" in products labeled as ice cream, the agency also required that non-nutritive sweeteners used in the products be declared as part of the name of the ice cream (i.e., "reduced-fat ice cream sweetened with aspartame") for a period of three years until consumers became aware of the fact that some ice cream products are made with non-nutritive sweeteners.
Defending this requirement, FDA reasoned that ice cream is a product that traditionally includes ice, milk and sugar, and consumers have an expectation that the ice cream they purchase contains those ingredients.
In contrast, the groups said consumers do not recognize milk or even flavored milk as a beverage that contains substantial amounts of sugar. Rather, milk is viewed as a healthy drink, particularly for school-aged children.
Children and adolescents are the largest consumers of flavored milk, but as consumers, they are not inclined to recognize that the milk they drink contains added sugar.
Milk flavored with non-nutritive sweetener, which has less sugar than other flavored milk, provides the same nutritional benefits as other flavored milk, but with fewer calories. As such, the groups asked that milk flavored with non-nutritive sweeteners be labeled as "milk" without further qualification so that consumers can more easily identify its overall nutritional value.
The public comment period runs through late May, after which FDA will make a final decision. It is unknown when the final decision will be made.
California dairy families
Recognizing that California's dairy families can no longer live under the status quo, the board of directors of the Milk Producers Council (MPC) recently voted to team up with Nielsen Merksamer, a prominent Sacramento, Cal., legal/lobbying firm, in an effort to strengthen dairy farmers' position in the state capitol.
The financial struggles California's roughly 1,600 dairy families face are well documented. Over the past five years, the price paid for California-produced milk has, more often than not, failed to cover the cost of producing that milk, resulting in the state's dairy families accumulating massive amounts of debt.
While the dairy markets in general have affected the industry throughout the country, California's dairies have been especially devastated by the California Department of Food & Agriculture's (CDFA) refusal to implement a fair minimum pricing structure, according to the council.
For example, as MPC noted in a newsletter last week, CDFA has seen fit to artificially discount the state's Class 4b price (the minimum price for milk sold to California cheese manufacturers) below the comparable federal order Class III price (the minimum price for milk sold to regulated cheese manufacturers around the country) to the tune of $745 million since 2010.
Despite several administrative hearings aimed at fixing this problem, MPC said it has become clear that CDFA is not willing to make the changes dairy farmers desperately need. The council said the new relationship with Nielsen Merksamer will give MPC and its producers a strong new ally in seeking changes for an economically sustainable dairy industry.
Researchers from Michigan State University have successfully engineered a plant with oily leaves -- a feat that could enhance biofuel production as well as lead to improved animal feeds.
The results, published in The Plant Cell, the journal of the American Society of Plant Biologists, show that researchers could use an algae gene involved in oil production to engineer a plant that stores lipids or vegetable oil in its leaves -- an uncommon occurrence for most plants.
Traditional biofuel research has focused on improving the oil content of seeds. One reason for this focus is because oil production in seeds occurs naturally. Little research, however, has been done to examine the oil production of leaves and stems because plants don't typically store lipids in these tissues.
Christoph Benning, Michigan State professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, led a collaborative effort with colleagues from the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center that resulted in a significant early step toward producing better plants for biofuels.
"Many researchers are trying to enhance plants' energy density, and this is another way of approaching it," Benning said. "It's a proof-of-concept that could be used to boost plants' oil production for biofuel use as well as improve the nutrition levels of animal feed."
Benning and his colleagues began by identifying five genes from one-celled green algae. From those five, they identified one gene that, when inserted into Arabidopsis thaliana, successfully boosted oil levels in the plant's leaf tissue.
To confirm that the improved plants were more nutritious and contained more energy, the research team fed them to caterpillar larvae. Those larvae gained more weight than worms that were fed regular leaves.
For the next phase of the research, Benning and his colleagues will work to enhance oil production in grasses and algae that have economic value. The benefits of this research are worth pursuing, Benning said.
"If oil can be extracted from leaves, stems and seeds, the potential energy capacity of plants may double," he explained. "Further, if algae can be engineered to continuously produce high levels of oil, rather than only when they are under stress, they can become a viable alternative to traditional agricultural crops."
Moreover, algae can be grown on poor agricultural land, which is a big plus in the food versus fuel debate, he added.
*Krissa Welshans holds a bachelor's degree in animal science from Michigan State University and a master's degree in public policy from New England College. Welshans has long been involved in agriculture and has worked with numerous agricultural groups, including the Animal Agriculture Alliance.