Kozak: Sweetener proposal not likely to advance

By Dave Natzke


Backlash from consumers and a changed environment surrounding flavored milk likely mean a petition regarding non-nutritive sweeteners faces a dim future, according to Jerry Kozak, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF).

“Years ago, there were attacks on chocolate milk, and it was being removed from schools,” Kozak told delegates and guests attending the 15th annual Dairy Farmers of America meeting in Kansas City, March 20. At the time, dairy processors were concerned they could not meet necessary reformulations related to calories and sugar content to meet school milk guidelines.

In March 2009, NMPF signed onto the petition with the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), seeking to amend the standard of identity for milk. The petition would allow the use of non-nutritive sweeteners in milk and 17 additional dairy products, without substantial front-of-package labeling requirements. Under the standards-of-identity petition, non-nutritive sweeteners could be listed under the ingredients label.

The petition said use of such sweeteners would aid in the fight against childhood obesity, while ensuring students would continue to have access to the nutritional benefits of milk and other dairy products.

“Those sweeteners can be used now, but they must be be labeled,” Kozak noted. “There was no attempt to hide the fact these sweeteners would have been in there. I thought the processors were trying to do the right thing, so we could have consumer-friendly labeling terms, but it would have had to be labeled anyway.”

It wasn't until nearly four years later, on Feb. 20, 2013, when FDA published the petition and scheduled a public comment period, set to close on May 21.

After FDA’s announcement, some consumer groups created an uproar over the non-nutritive sweeteners, especially aspartame, charging that the dairy industry was trying to sneak artificial sweeteners into milk and dairy products. SumOfUs.org, a global consumer advocacy organization, said nearly 90,000 consumers  joined its effort opposing the IDFA/NMPF proposal.

"I think the petition is unlikely to go forward,” Kozak said. “First, we don't have 90,000 dairy farmers. It's unlikely we're going to get a lot of people on our side to support it. Second, I think FDA is going to take (the consumer backlash) into consideration and slow the process down. I don’t think it's going to go anyplace.”

”It tells us something,” Kozak said. “Milk and dairy products are ‘emotional’ products, whether we like it or not. Consumers expect more from us; they expect dairy products to be fresh and wholesome, and they expect labels to be ‘clean’.”

“I think this tells us that if we want to change the standards of identity, we better be very careful, and we probably didn't think this through as well as we should have,” he continued. “We have to take consumerism into account.”

Kozak also noted that since the petition was first filed with FDA in 2009, newly formulated flavored milks have reduced calorie and sugar levels, and many schools have put those products back in school lunch programs and ala carte offerings to students.