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Milk Shake-Up

Consumers: New FDA rules will require label changes to reflect true fat content.


WASHINGTON — Got milk?

Know how much fat milk's got?

New rules published this week by the Food and Drug Administration will help consumers answer the second question, at least.

The new rules outlined in the Federal Register require a change in the labels on milk cartons. From now on, dairies will not be able to call 2% milk "low fat"--because it is not. But they will be able to call skim milk by that most powerful of food marketing buzz phrases--"fat-free"--because it is.

The changes are an attempt to bring dairy product labels in line with those on other food products, said Elizabeth J. Campbell of the FDA's Office of Food Labeling.

When the FDA came up with standards for food labels called for in the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act of 1990, it said "low fat" should apply to foods with 3 or fewer grams of fat per serving.

Milk and dairy products initially were exempted from those rules, however, so 2% milk was called "low fat" even though it has 5 grams of fat per serving. With the new rule, "the term 'low fat' is going to mean 'low fat,' " Campbell said.

Two percent milk will now be called "reduced fat" milk. One percent milk, which has 2.5 grams of fat per serving, will qualify for the "low fat" label. Whole milk has 8 grams of fat per serving.

The FDA action was prompted by the request of groups that usually take opposing sides on many issues: the health-conscious Center for Science in the Public Interest and two dairy groups, the Milk Industry Foundation and the International Dairy Foods Assn.

"The FDA's label changes will make it easier for consumers to shop for healthier dairy products," said Bruce Silverglade, CSPI's director of legal affairs.

Silverglade said many consumers are utterly confused by milk labels. "People think that 2% milk is 98% less fat than regular milk," he said. That means even more confusion when consumers try to tell the difference between 2% and 1% milk, because they say, 'It has 1% less fat than 2%, so why bother?' " Silverglade said.

One-glass-a-day milk drinkers who switch from 2% to 1% milk will cut fat intake by about 1 1/2 pounds each year, Silverglade said. Susan Ruland, a spokeswoman for the IDFA, said the rule change "does help the industry better market the choices that are available."

Cottage cheese and other milk products will also be covered under the new rules, but yogurt will not, Campbell said.

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