Watchdog fights to keep milk labels

A consumer watchdog is challenging the dairy industry’s push to relax labeling requirements for milk products that contain aspartame and other “hyper-sweeteners” it says are linked to the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic. 

For more than three years, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) and the National Milk Producers Federation have sought permission to peel back labels on flavored milk containing low-calorie aspartame and other artificial sweeteners. 

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The groups are trying to get around mandatory labels such as “low calorie chocolate milk,” which they say doesn’t exactly appeal to children. The labels, they contend, are contributing to a decline in consumption of healthy products. 

“Milk flavored with non-nutritive sweetener promotes public health by offering children and adolescents a beverage they are more likely to consume than plain milk and that has all of the nutritional benefits of milk and less sugar than milk flavored with nutritive sweeteners,” the industry argued in a 2009 petition filed with the Food and Drug Administration.

Last month, the agency announced it would take up consideration of the petition, and put out a call for public comments. 

The action sparked renewed opposition to the plan from SumOfUs.org, a nonprofit consumer group. The organization disputes the industry’s claim that aspartame is healthy and points to research suggesting artificial sweeteners alter brain chemistry, making people crave higher-calorie foods. 

“Hyper-sweet additives like aspartame rewire children’s brains so that they always want sugary foods, turning the kids into tiny consumption machines,” said Kaytee Riek, campaign manager for SumOfUs.org. “This constant craving fattens up the food companies’ bottom lines as it fattens up their customers, leading to our current obesity epidemic.”

In response to FDA’s request for comments, the group has launched an online petition. Thus far, more than 93,000 people have signed on, the group said. 


FOOD SAFETY AND INSPECTION SERVICE: Federal regulators are ditching the ban on three additives from ready-to-eat meals. 

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced Wednesday that it finalized a rule to allow sodium benzoate, sodium propionate and benzoic acid into ready-to-eat turkey and chicken products. 

They had not been allowed, despite being considered “generally safe” by the Food and Drug Administration, because the agency believed the chemicals could make the meat appear to be of “greater value” or conceal damage.

Last May, the FSIS issued a proposal to not just allow specific issues of the three additives, but to lift the prohibition all together. In that proposal, the agency noted two petitions filed by Kraft Foods and Kemin Food Technologies that claimed the substances do not increase shelf life or “conceal or mask damage or inferiority.” 

The information and data provided by the two companies, the agency said, convinced it to move forward with the new rules. 

They will become effective on May 7.


FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is partnering with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to hold meetings in five states in an effort to formulate a rule that curbs antibiotic use in livestock used as food. 

Last year, the FDA proposed requiring a veterinary prescription for any antibiotic animals that would become food, and it is reaching out to the industry, the public and local communities about the challenges that those regulations might impose.  In an earlier study, the FDA found that 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used on animals. Penicillin and other drugs are often mixed into food or water to prevent cows, chicken, pigs and other livestock from getting sick in crowded pens. 

Some experts caution the overuse of antibiotics may lead to stronger bacteria that are immune to traditional medications. 

The FDA issued “voluntary guidelines” for the industry last year, warning them that “non-judicious” — or non-medical — use of antibiotics could cause the drug-resistant diseases in animals, which could be passed on to the humans who eat them.