U.S. food regulators have signaled that they are likely to change the rules on what ingredients can go into 70 styles of cheese, letting a substance called ultra-filtered milk be used to make more products. But one farming group says that ultra-filtered milk isn't enough like milk to use for cheese and could threaten the livelihood of small dairies.
The National Farmers Union on Tuesday protested a dairy processors' petition to allow the increased use of ultra-filtered milk when making provolone, Muenster or other cheeses. A similar fight is brewing in the ice cream industry.
The outcome is important to California's $5-billion dairy business, which sees ultra-filtered milk as a lucrative domestic product that also has export potential. California produces more milk than any other state and narrowly trails Wisconsin in the quest for cheese supremacy.
Ultra-filtered milk isn't sold in supermarket refrigerator cases next to the half-and-half.
It results when milk is pushed through thin, porous membranes that separate protein, fat, lactose, water, minerals and vitamins from the fluid. The process produces a milk protein concentrate that has about a third of the volume of fluid milk but still has the components to produce cheese or ice cream.
"It is just very concentrated milk," said Michael Marsh, chief executive of Western United Dairymen, a Modesto-based trade association.
The Food and Drug Administration allows the use of ultra-filtered milk in some products, such as pizza cheese. This week the agency stopped taking public comments on the petition by the National Cheese Institute, a dairy processors' organization, and has suggested it would issue the new rules later this year.
The National Farmers Union worries that if the FDA loosens cheese ingredient restrictions, it will eventually pave the way for the dry form of ultra-filtered milk to win approval for cheese making. Dry ultra-filtered milk is used in such foods as protein drinks and energy bars.
"That would be economically devastating to our members. The processors will want to import cheaper, lower-quality dry milk protein concentrate instead of purchasing domestic milk," said Katy Ziegler, spokeswoman for the National Farmers Union, whose 250,000 members are mostly small Midwest farmers.
The farmers' group also contends that wider use of the product would change the character of cheese and that consumers could be left in the dark, depending upon the labeling requirements.
"We believe allowing ultra-filtered milk to be an approved ingredient of standardized cheeses would reduce the nutritional value of those products," because the filtration process removes vitamins, minerals, enzymes and lactose, said Ziegler, whose group includes many small dairies.
A 2001 Government Accountability Office report found some nutritional differences between ultra-filtered milk and conventional fluid milk that would have to be corrected during the cheese-making process to produce equivalent products.
However, food experts say that's not the case with the liquid form of ultra-filtered milk. And the FDA doesn't plan to loosen the standards for the dried product. That's why other dairy groups support changing the regulations to allow cheese makers to use the liquid.
"For most farmers this is not a big issue," Marsh said.
Any differences between traditional cheese and cheese made with liquid ultra-filtered milk are minimal, said Rusty Bishop, a food science professor and director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin.
"We have made cheeses from ultra-filtered milk and they are nutritionally the same as any other cheese with one exception -- they tend to have a little more calcium," Bishop said.
A favorable FDA ruling would help California dairy farmers better manage milk supplies, said John Bruhn, a food science professor at UC Davis.
"You can move in one tanker what would take three tankers of regular fluid milk," Bruhn said. "That means you can ship milk solids to processors outside of California more efficiently."
Although there may be no qualitative differences between cheese made from fluid and ultra-filtered milk, Bruhn said producers should adopt the new technology cautiously.
"Sometimes the food industry will put a product on the shelf before it has fully assessed what the consumer reaction will be," Bruhn said. "There could be a consumer backlash when they see the ingredient listed."
Mindful that consumers might not take to cheese with ultra-filtered milk listed as a major ingredient, the Cheese Institute is fighting the FDA over labeling requirements.
The Cheese Institute is "concerned about proposed language that requires manufacturers that use ultra-filtered milk to declare this ingredient as ultra-filtered milk on the ingredients statement of the finished product, rather than simply listing milk," said Clay Hough, senior vice president and general counsel for the International Dairy Foods Assn., which includes the cheese trade group. Hough said that such a requirement would confuse consumers and reduce the flexibility of manufacturers to use varying quantities of fluid milk and ultra-filtered milk by each batch of cheese produced.
"Complying with this labeling requirement would be very problematic," Hough said.