New Technologies, Demands Lead to Food Identity Crisis

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The National Milk Producers Federation had a meltdown two years ago when it learned the International Ice Cream Association wanted to tinker with the "standard of identity" for the frozen confection.

Like many other foods, ice cream has a "standard of identity" -- a sort of food pedigree -- that determines how it is supposed to look and taste, as well as the required ingredients and even its name. The milk producers were upset by a petition the ice cream makers filed with the Food and Drug Administration requesting a change in the composition of ice cream: removing a limitation on the use of whey, a milk-derived protein, in the recipe.

The milk federation, which has a stake in how much of its product goes into ice cream, told the Agriculture Department the only benefit would be to manufacturers because whey is cheaper than milk. The ice cream makers said that the addition of whey won't change the creamy character or taste of ice cream and that it aids in freezing and whipping the ingredients together, as well as in preventing ice crystals.

The debate over the ice cream standard has yet to be resolved. It is only one example of how traditional food standards, many of them issued decades ago for staple foods such as cheese, ketchup, mayonnaise and macaroni, are being challenged. New food technology, processes and nutritional demands from consumers for low-fat and low-calorie foods are driving the development of new products that don't fall in the old categories.

In response, the FDA and the Department of Agriculture issued a proposal on May 17 that sets out 15 principles that would guide their decisions about whether to add, revise or eliminate food standards. The proposed rule provides a road map for what issues groups should consider before they petition for a new standard. Comments are due by mid-August.

"As products moved toward convenience, taste and health concerns, we were getting more and more petitions," said Robert C. Post , director of labeling and consumer protection at USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service . If no change in the standard was granted, food processors used replacements for things such as fat but had to call the product either an imitation of the food covered by the standard or by a different name altogether.

The proposal is also an effort to cut the workload of the agencies as they devote most of their resources to food safety, leaving skeleton crews to deal with standards of identity. The FDA oversees 280 different kinds of foods, and the USDA addresses 80 kinds of poultry and meat products. The agencies share responsibility for eggs.

"Food standards are like what mother used to make. They literally list every ingredient, and there were a huge number of people doing nothing but food standards," said Peter Barton Hutt , FDA general counsel in the 1970s.

In 1938, Congress authorized FDA to issue standards to "promote honesty and fair dealing in the interest of consumers." They were first put in place to cure manufacturers of degrading foods and fooling consumers. They addressed what had come to be known as "the American Chamber of Horrors." There were egg noodles without eggs; Bred Spred, a tiny bit of fruit and lots of pectin masquerading as jam; and maple syrup with 1.7 percent maple syrup.

The agencies' proposal earlier this month said any new standards should be simple, easy to use and consistent -- something they are not now. They should allow for maximum flexibility in food technology while protecting the public and meeting "consumers' expectations of product characteristics and uniformity."

"The proposed rule doesn't remove any standards of identity, but it does say, 'If you want adjustments, please be motivated to do your homework and find your common ground,' " said Regina Hildwine , senior director of food labeling and standards for the Food Products Association , an industry trade group. The group supports a review of the standards-setting process.

The process of petitioning the agencies is long and laborious. For example, the battle over what constitutes peanut butter took over a decade. The Food Products Association asked for a standard for boneless salmon in 1989 and has not received a reply.

FDA is expected to respond this year to a 1998 petition to revise the mayonnaise standard to allow for different quantities of eggs and oil -- again to satisfy modern tastes and diets. Pamela A. Chumley , executive director of the Association for Dressings and Sauces , said the basic standard would stay the same -- there would have to be eggs and oil -- but it would allow different quantities of the ingredients, new emulsifiers and processes, and egg products.

Bruce Silverglade , director of legal affairs for the Center for Science in the Public Interest , doesn't want a modern-day version of substituting ingredients in products -- what the dairy people say the ice cream makers are trying to do -- and passing them off as the traditional food.

"Food standards are to protect consumers from being ripped off," said Silverglade. "Low-cholesterol mayonnaise with no eggs may improve nutrition, but is it mayonnaise?" he asked.

Despite the shortcomings of the process, most groups support the standards. When the agencies asked in 1995 whether the standards should be eliminated, many food and consumer groups urged regulators to keep them because they level the competitive playing field, provide a reference point for international food standard negotiations and prevent states from getting in on the act.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company