WASHINGTON


What is cheese? FDA wrestles with issue

By LANCE GAY
Scripps Howard News Service
February 08, 2006

WASHINGTON - It comes in various shades of yellow, it's hard and it's derived from milk.

But is standard cheese manufactured from ultra-filtered milk really cheese?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has been wrangling over the issue for six years, suggests it is, and the agency is proposing new food rules recognizing that standardized cheese made from ultra-filtered milk can be marketed as real cheese.

That's brought some of America's dairy farmers to the barricades, insisting the FDA is opening the door to products that will cheapen some of America's most cherished basic values: its cheeses.

The standards for making some 70 varieties of cheese, representing $32 billion a year in revenues, are at stake.

Opponents of the changes - including Peter Hardin, publisher of the weekly publication The Milkweed - contend that changing standards to allow anything but pure dairy products into making cheese will drastically undermine consumers' confidence in what they find on supermarket shelves. They note there is already a backlash developing against processed foods - the organic food movement, now a $15 billion-a-year industry.

"Changing the definition of milk will drastically change America's dairy production as we know it," argues Dave Frederickson, president of the National Farmers Union representing 250,000 traditional dairy farmers.

But the food industry, supported by larger dairy farmers who are part of the National Milk Producers Federation, is behind the proposed change in FDA policy to permit the use of ultra-filtered milk in making cheese.

Ultra-filtered milk is milk that is forced through a membrane to remove water and milk sugars. The food industry says this makes it easier and cheaper to transport the product.

The International Dairy Foods Association insists the change is just a technical matter and only adjusts government regulations written more than 30 years ago to meet changed industry practices.

"This is not about milk," said Christopher Galen, a spokesman for the group. "We don't think this is a big deal."

The FDA acknowledges that it is feeling heat over the cheese issue. "We know from the petitions we've received, this is a hot issue," said FDA spokesman Michael Herndon.

But he said the agency has tentatively concluded there's nothing in the composition of cheese made from ultra-filtered milk that is different from cheese made with ordinary milk. "It's not going to change the identity standards of cheese," Herndon said.

Katy Ziegler, a government-relations representative for the National Farmers Union, disagrees. She argues that trust would be undermined if cheese manufacturers are permitted to use other products, or ultra-filtered milk.

"This is a huge concern," Ziegler said, contending consumer confidence in milk could be undermined if the government tinkers with standards. "We've spent billions of dollars raised from dairy producers to promote the real seal."

Ziegler said dairy farmers also are concerned that altering the rules will open the door to a flood of cheap imported ultra-filtered milk, currently manufactured only in the Southwestern United States. Although the FDA rules would permit only wet ultra-filtered milk to be used in cheese, dairy farmers are concerned it would open the door to eventual use of dried ultra-filtered milk manufactured in New Zealand and Europe.

Food manufacturers say this is nonsense, and Galen noted that the industry is only seeking to use the wet ultra-filtered milk, not the dried imported stuff.

Galen said consumers won't notice any taste difference in cheeses if ultra-filtered milk is used, rather than the fluid variety. The product is already used in manufacturing so-called non-standard cheese - known in the industry as "pizza cheese."


(Contact Lance Gay at GayL(at)SHNS.com.)