Comment period for milk, dairy identity ends 8/27. Part 2 of 7/26 hearing right here

iStock-544807136.jpgBy Sherry Bunting, from Farmshine, August 17, 2018

WASHINGTON, D.C. – There are 10 days remaining for public comment on FDA standards of identity for milk and nearly 80 other dairy products, along with the other aspects at stake as FDA launched its Nutrition Innovation Strategy to determine – and stamp – healthy choices for consumers while taking steps to “modernize” standards of identity to “achieve nutritional goals.”

The daylong FDA hearing on July 26 was one of several relating to these issues on the FDA docket, and as previously reported in Farmshine, dairy has taken center stage for several reasons.

First, Scott Gottlieb, head of the FDA, responded to calls for FDA to take a closer look at the dairy industry standards of identity, especially for milk. He opened the hearing saying that the agency must first determine “how consumers understand and use the term ‘milk’ to know if the inherent differences between these products is well understood by consumers so we can understand how consumers are being misled.”

The public comments being received by FDA through August 27, are the first step in its multi-faceted approach.

Individual comments on any of these converging standards of identity issues and the Nutrition Innovation Strategy can be sent to FDA prior to the Aug. 27, 2018 deadline at the docket portal here.

Or, send to: Dockets Management Staff (HFA–305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20857. 

The second aspect of this brief comment period is to discuss the standards of identity more broadly.

“We want to hear about changes in science to review and update,” said Gottlieb. “We are hearing the standards of identity can cause the food industry to avoid reformulations that would reduce fat and calories. We want to gather this input and encourage out-of-the-box thinking with the bottom line helping consumers to identify healthier options.”

We covered some of the testimony at FDA’s July 26 listening session in Part One in Farmshine, Aug. 10, 2018.

Here, in Part Two, published in Farmshine August 17, 2018, are more of the elements from that hearing that are so important to know and understand…

Of particular interest on dairy product standards of identity were the hearing comments by Cary Frye, senior vice president of regulatory affairs for the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). She commended Commissioner Gottlieb for undertaking the Nutrition Innovation Strategy “to improve nutrition and health.”

While absolutely silent on enforcement of milk’s standard of identity, despite representing the nation’s milk and dairy food processors, Frye said, “the key area we are working on is to modernize the standards of identity for dairy products, which make up more than one-third of the 280 standards of identity currently on the FDA books.”

She said these standards “are outdated and stand in the way of innovations and novel processes. Current systems are not working and definitely need to be reformed.”

Frye noted that the cheese standards have been unchanged while ultrafiltered milk processes have been around for 20 years. “Clearly a new approach is needed for processes like this to be used to create new and healthful products.”

She said “processing milk by filtration to concentrate proteins and remove lactose is embraced around the world, but these new processes are not permitted in our dairy products with the current standards.”

Frye did, however, thank the FDA for what she described as FDA’s “recent guidance allowing ultrafiltered milk as an ingredient for cheeses.”

“But the agency needs to go further and make dairy a top priority for modernized standards of identity,” said Frye on behalf of IDFA. “We must incentify innovation. We can’t make these investments if we must petition for standards that take decades to complete.”

Along with standards, FDA wants to modernize label claims as a key element of the nutrition innovation strategy, to give consumers “quick signals” with important information on the nutritional benefits of food choices.

A key question FDA is looking at is: What claims best stimulate innovation to create products that are better choices?

Speakers at the hearing identified food trends, saying consumers are committed to a more balanced approach between nutrition and function, but also the idea of food, that it is part of how they experience life, with taste becoming more important to consumers than nutritional profile as they move away from “lowfat” foods.

(Unfortunately, this FDA strategy has not yet acknowledged there are health-related and nutritional reasons for consumers to move away from “lowfat” dogma of the past 30 to 40 years. My comment to the FDA docket will include sending by mail, a copy of The Big Fat Surprise, by Nina Teicholz, who will join me in sending copies of this book to FDA?)

As in many of these discussions, the generational shifts in food trends and choices are the most noticeable. Hearing presenters noted that millennials are pursuing “clean eating and natural foods” as more important than a nutrition-based label.

With that in mind, upholding and enforcing the current standards of identity for milk and dairy products becomes important since it is simple compared with concocted imitation formulations with long lists of ingredients unable to provide all of the nutrition milk has – naturally.

Hearing presenters also acknowledged that the declines in consumption of meat and dairy over the past 40 years have just begun to “shift back the other way.” People are returning to the fresh perimeter of the grocery store.

(Again, no mystery here, FDA needs to read the book: The Big Fat Surprise)

With millennial food choices driven by a so-called “return to purity,” my thoughts as I listened to the July 26 FDA Nutrition Innovation Strategy hearing is this: Will FDA move incrementally toward giving consumers what they want, while slipping into that desired food the science and innovation the FDA and food industry believe consumers need… in order to “get” the FDA ‘healthy choice’ stamp – however that is ultimately defined in this multi-year strategy and however it is ultimately designed for packaging?

These are big things to watch and participate in.

This is not to say that some new standards aren’t needed. Rob Post for Chobani, testified that they produce a nutrient dense, healthy, strained Greek yogurt, but because no standard of identity exists for this type of yogurt, they are challenged to have standardized nutrition profiles “that account for the 52% protein content in Greek yogurt” when used in institutional feeding programs like the National School Lunch Program.

“Today’s consumers have evolving demands and a new set of food values,” said Post. “Health is important, but so are other values and drivers.”

Others noted that the current standards of identity “do not allow lower salt content for cheese.”

This could be an issue when it comes to nutritional cheese getting a ‘healthy choice’ FDA stamp in the future, if such stamps are based on what are now questionable low-salt directives for healthy eating.

“Standards are important because they assure the consistency of the product, its authenticity and nutrition,” said Post.

Laura MacCleery, Policy Director, Center for Science in the Public Interest testified that, “Americans overconsume saturated fat.” They are among the contingent of wanting to work on labeling to steer consumers away from saturated fat.

Meanwhile, the American Heart Association testified to FDA that they want the standards of identity “modernized to improve the nutritional value of food by reducing both sodium and saturated fat.”

On the flipside, members of the dairy processing industry said they are looking for standards to be modernized to abolish the milk fat minimums and allow lower sodium on natural cheeses that currently have rigid standards of identity. Dairy processors testified that this is necessary to conform to the nutritional focal points of this discussion – salt and fat – that are still based on current dietary guidelines.

Will FDA grant these wishes and will we see lowfat and low salt cheeses introduced as “the real thing” because the standard has changed based on a dietary guideline many in the scientific community are already saying is a flawed guideline?

You can see the intertwined dilemma this FDA Nutrition Innovation Strategy could spawn.

Taste is king, according to the food processors speaking about low salt claims. They said they go ahead and formulate low salt varieties, they just are not always advertising it on the packaging space.

Will modernization of standards of identity low-salt and low-fat our food – our cheese for example — without our knowing it or being able to choose? Do we care if that happens as long as it tastes good? And how is that happening? With milk protein concentrates, given FDA’s already loosened grip on allowable ingredients in cheese standards of identity?

A representative for Great Lakes Cheese spoke up to say that, “Consumer transparency around label claims and that presents a huge consumer perception issue. We are interested in experimenting to reduce sodium in cheeses, but without having to put a flag saying so on our product.”

Without a change in standards, a low salt or low fat cheese would have to be labeled that way. If the fat and salt standards are abolished, no ‘flag’ is needed and consumers won’t know the fat or salt is lowered – it just may taste different.

One question asked was “If our goal is to impact consumer behavior, how do we empower consumers to look for better choices by looking to the nutrition facts instead of making changes to do it for them (with modernized standards and healthy-choice stamps)?”

Part of this process is FDA’s work to “update” the definition of “healthy” as a “voluntary” claim. What kind of symbol should be used, should it be by food group.

“What’s healthy and not healthy shifts over time, and it’s not the same for everyone. If you’re putting a stamp on something today, you may have to take it off at some time down the road,” said one hearing participant.

Dieticians were on the side of “one size doesn’t fit all” when it comes to using FDA-sanctioned ‘healthy’ stamps or symbols on food labels. They preferred to see a focus on foods and food patterns more than specific nutrients.

In fact, one anonymous dietician has already commented on the public document online to say they have spent 30 years with government food programs and this is his or her observation over those 30 years: “We have done a great disservice to the public in trying to get people to eat 6 to 12 servings of carbohydrates per day while subsisting on a lowfat diet.”

A participant from the Edge dairy farmer cooperative of 800 members in the Midwest (formerly Dairy Business Association Cooperative based in Wisconsin) said that, “Accurate labeling is the first step in FDA’s enforcement of existing standards for milk, cheese, yogurt. High nutrition and taste have come to be expected,” he said.

“Inaccurate labeling is not fair to farmers and their investment or to customers who may have been misled. We’re encouraged by FDA’s announcement and we encourage innovation in the dairy case to keep up with changing wants and needs with options for healthy products, but most people under-consume dairy products. We must have the flexibility to make what competes and to label innovative foods made with milk.”

-30-