- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

Dairy farmers are getting a headache from ice-cream manufacturers that want to loosen standards on how the frozen treat is made.

Ice-cream companies are asking the Food and Drug Administration to let them make their products with more whey — the watery part of milk that separates from curds when cheese is processed. They say government approval of their proposal will give them more flexibility to make a variety of products and meet consumer demand.

Whey, which Little Miss Muffet was known for eating, often is an ingredient in bread, pie crust and canned soup. Until now, some processors have shunned whey because of its reputation for giving some foods a rancid flavor.

The National Milk Producers Federation, which represents 60,000 dairy farmers, says ice-cream makers are running the risk of ruining the taste of their product by switching to whey as a cheaper substitute for nonfat milk.

“Descriptions associated with flavor problems stemming from the increased use of whey proteins include ‘salty’ and ‘graham cracker-like,’” the federation’s president, Jerry Kozak, wrote the FDA.

The FDA currently requires processors to make ice cream with 10 percent nonfat milk solids, including a small amount of whey. The processors want a new standard that would allow them to increase the proportion of milk proteins, specifically more whey.

“If [you] set a low common denominator, then someone will do that,” said Rob Byrne, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Arlington-based farmers federation. “You can’t provide consumers the assurance that that’s not going to happen.”

Ice-cream processors maintain that more whey in their product will not change the nutritional content or taste.

Susan Ruland, a spokeswoman for the International Ice Cream Association, said manufacturers are producing whey proteins that do not taint the foods with bad flavors. In the past, whey was produced by heating milk. “Now, they just use a filter,” she said. “The off flavors that used to be an issue are not an issue anymore.”

What is not in dispute is the economic effect of the FDA’s decision.

There is no question that whey is a better bargain than nonfat dry milk. Dry whey costs about 15 cents per pound while nonfat dry milk is about 80 cents a pound, the Agriculture Department says.

Dairy farmers, already seeing some of the lowest prices in years for their product, fear the new standards will allow makers to substitute whey for nonfat dry milk.

“If you’re not using milk and cream to go into ice cream, then you’re using other ingredients, and then, basically we’re going to have a flood on the market [of dry milk],” Mr. Byrne said. “We don’t necessarily want to see more of a buildup of nonfat dry milk.”

Because farmers continue to produce milk at levels far outpacing demand, the government, as the buyer of last resort, is stockpiling mountains of dry milk and finding it hard to give it away even for relief projects overseas.

The federation argues that if the FDA sides with manufacturers, the dairy sector could see annual losses of $100 million.

The $20-billion-a-year ice-cream industry maintains that a change in FDA standards would make it easier to develop more products along the lines of the ethnic flavors, candy combinations, sorbets and sherbets that have been key to its growth.

“Dairy producers are thinking really in the old-school way that the industry is just doing this to save money,” said Gary Wells, the ice-cream association’s chairman and chief executive of Wells’ Dairy Inc. in LeMars, Iowa.

“That’s old thinking. That’s history.”

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