Late last month, I alerted you to an FDA citizen petition submitted by two dairy industry trade groups relating to dairy products and artificial sweeteners. I told you how the dairy industry wants to change the “statements of identity” for milk and 17 other dairy products to allow non-nutritive sweeteners (such as aspartame) in these products without the prominent front-label “nutrient content claims” currently required by FDA regulations — phrases like “reduced sugar” or “reduced calorie.”
As you know, I am deeply troubled by this petition.
Not only did I submit a personal letter of protest to the FDA and encourage you to comment on FDA’s website and sign an online petition about it*, but I also gave up my entire Saturday last weekend to draft an open “sign-on” letter to oppose the dairy industry request. That letter will be sent to FDA in the coming days bearing the signatures of numerous highly respected food activists, medical professionals, obesity experts and public health policy groups. (Once it’s submitted to FDA, I’ll post the letter, with the complete list of signatories, here on The Lunch Tray.)
These leading experts all share my serious concern about the dairy petition and so it was with some surprise that I read a new blog post by a respected fellow food blogger, Spoonfed, who seems to downplay the issue on the theory that front labels mean little and, at any rate, consumers should just focus on back-label ingredient disclosures:
. . . let’s get real here. Front-of-package labels are marketing-speak, pure and simple. As rushed as we may be while grocery shopping, as preoccupied as we are with kids and life, there’s simply no way to know for sure what’s in your food unless you read the ingredients.
To be fair, Spoonfed’s post seems primarily concerned with correcting a common misconception in the media that but for the granting of this petition, the dairy industry can’t add non-nutritive sweeteners to milk at all. That’s not the case; this is an issue of front-package labeling, something I explained clearly in my first post on the issue. But to the extent that Sp0onfed is also saying that these front label claims don’t matter much, I want to tell you why that position is just plain wrong.
First of all, yes, we all should be avid back-label-readers. But in reality, many consumers do make purchases in haste or out of habit. And if consumers have never before seen aspartame in their trusted brands of dairy products without a front label tip-off like “reduced sugar,” it’s even less likely that they will use back label ingredient listings to confirm what they already believe, i.e., that aspartame and other non-nutritive sweeteners aren’t present.
Furthermore, while Spoonfed dismisses everything on the front label as “marketing speak,” I can tell you as a lawyer with food regulatory experience that companies often chafe under FDA-required front label disclosures. If it weren’t for those regulations, you can be sure Kraft would gladly call its bright orange, plasticine slices “cheese” instead of the clunky “pasteurized processed cheese food.” Indeed, the entire dairy petition is premised on the claim that “use of the phrase ‘reduced calorie’ is not attractive to children” — i.e., that the required language anything but helpful marketing for them. Yet as much as producers would like to abandon some of those FDA front label requirements, they serve as a good tip-off to consumers about what they’re buying — not as a substitute for reading back labels, but as a useful adjunct, one visible on the store shelf even before the consumer picks up the product.
But none of that is the critical issue. We should all be less concerned about supermarket shoppers being misled (though that’s a real problem) and far more worried about the 32 million public school children participating in the National School Lunch Program and the 12 million in the School Breakfast Program, all of whom are offered milk — usually including a flavored milk option — each and every school day, sometimes multiple times a day. And the dairy industry has been quite candid in stating that this “petition was and continues to be a direct attempt to keep flavored milks in school cafeterias.”
In other words, if this petition is successful, you can be sure we will soon see a dramatic increase in the volume of artificially-sweetened flavored milk offered in U.S. schools.
As a public school parent, that has me very worried. Why? Not just because millions of kids will be guzzling increased quantities of aspartame or acesulfame-potassium, but because their parents are unlikely to know anything about it. Very few school districts offer full ingredient disclosures on their websites, but the majority of them use existing FDA nutrient claims (“low-fat milk,” “fat-free milk”) to describe milk on their printed and online school meal menus. Yet if artificially sweetened chocolate milk can still be called “chocolate milk,” without any qualifier, parents will know nothing of a very material change in product formulation. (A spokesman for the National Dairy Council, seeking to allay this concern, indicated to NPR that “school administrators would likely inform parents of the change by putting it on menus, websites and newsletters.” But why rely on such scattershot and unreliable methods of keeping parents informed, when current labeling laws, if left unchanged, would ensure that parents know exactly what kind of flavored milk their children are consuming at school?)
For me, the bottom line is this. The dairy industry’s desire to increase its flavored milk sales in public schools is not a sufficient justification for taking potential risks with students’ long term health. To the extent there are any questions regarding the safety of artificial sweeteners — particularly aspartame and acesulfame-potassium — then we need to act NOW to prevent the flooding of American schools with artificially-sweetened milk, the likely outcome if the dairy industry petition is granted.
As mentioned in a prior post, I want you to sign the Sum of Us petition on this issue because it has good traction (over 100,000 signatures to date), but I don’t like its false implication that but for the granting of its request, the dairy industry could not use non-nutritive sweeteners in milk products. That’s likely a case of carelessness and not an intent to mislead signers.
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