March 1, 2013 at 7:56 AM ET
Two milk trade groups are asking the Food and Drug Administration for greater flexibility in how they inform consumers when artificial sweeteners are added to kid-friendly products such as chocolate milk.
The International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation are asking the FDA to ease rules that require them to make very clear, on the front of the package, when products like chocolate, strawberry and vanilla milk have reduced calories or sugar because they are sweetened with artificial sweeteners.
As of now, those products have to clearly carry a label such as “reduced sugar,” and they also have to meet stringent restrictions about how they are using such sweeteners, said Cary Frye, vice president for regulatory and scientific affairs for the International Dairy Foods Association.
If they don’t, the industry can’t say the product is still “milk.”
Frye said those requirements are more rigorous than for competitors who sell things like sports drinks and fruit-flavored beverages. That makes it hard for them to compete with other thirst quenchers kids want, Frye said.
“They give the dairy industry additional restrictions that aren’t the same for other beverages,” Frye said.
In their petition to the FDA, the trade groups also argued that the required, prominent low-calorie labels are not attractive to children.
Kids are a key market for the milk industry, which has struggled for decades with declining milk consumption.
One thing many kids do like to drink: milk sweetened with chocolate, vanilla or another flavoring.
Most of those drinks are currently sweetened with sugar, making them more caloric. The milk industry argues that if they could reduce the labeling hurdles it would be easier to offer lower-calorie chocolate milk at stores and in schools. That, they say, would help fight childhood obesity.
If the proposal is approved, Frye said the flavored milks would still list artificial sweeteners. But the label would be on the back on the package, where most beverages include nutritional information.
The industry groups asked the FDA to consider the change in 2009, but it wasn’t until late February that the FDA opened the request up for public comment.
In an e-mail, an FDA spokeswoman said it’s not unusual for the FDA to receive hundreds of petitions each year and noted that they act with due deliberation on each.
The public comment period runs through late May, and the FDA said it couldn’t say when after that it would take action on the petition.