Why Does the Dairy Industry Oppose GMO Labels?

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) is one of the corporate front groups suing Vermont in an attempt to block the state’s GMO labeling law.

The trade group is also lobbying for HR 4432, an anti-consumer, anti-states’ rights bill, introduced in April (2014) in the House of Representatives by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas).

The bill, dubbed by consumers as the ‘Deny Americans the Right to Know’ (DARK) Act, would pre-empt all state GMO labeling laws. HR 4432 would also legalize the use of the word ‘natural’ on products that contain GMOs.

IDFA President and CEO Connie Tipton has been an outspoken opponent of consumers’ right to know. In her address to this year’s Dairy Forum, she noted that consumers “can be harsh critics on topics such as genetically modified organisms” – and then went on to criticize “restrictive labeling requirements” as “a straightjacket on innovation and marketing.”

Tipton has also made it clear that not only does the IDFA oppose mandatory GMO labeling laws, the trade group also opposes retailers’ efforts to label voluntarily. For instance, when Walmart considered labeling the GMO sweet corn it sells (a promise that remains unfulfilled), Tipton went on the attack. Walmart, she said,

“announced this past summer it planned to sell a new crop of genetically modified sweet corn created by Monsanto. Nothing wrong with that, but a lot of us were scratching our heads when Wal-Mart added that it would label the product as containing GMO ingredients – even though the Food and Drug Administration has already said the product is safe.

“Given Wal-Mart’s size and market share, there are legitimate concerns that its decision on GMO labeling will force other retailers to march in lockstep behind the industry giant.”

What’s to hide?

Why would the IDFA spend millions to defeat GMO labeling laws, including launching a lawsuit against Vermont?

Isn’t the dairy industry the ‘Got Milk?’ people, the ones who wear milk mustaches to get kids to drink what the industry promotes as healthy whole food? Doesn’t the IDFA represent the family farmers whose black-and-white cows graze happily on green grass outside picturesque red barns?

Truth be told, those idyllic images have nothing to do with reality. They’re part of a carefully orchestrated, and very expensive public relations campaign aimed at fostering the illusion that milk and other dairy products originate from small family farms – illusions that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, the IDFA is just another wing of the processed food industry. And like the rest of the processed food industry, IDFA members have a lot to hide, where their products come from, and what’s in them.

Dairy products as delivery systems for GMO sweeteners

Milk consumption has been on the decline for some time now. Today, less than a third of dairy production goes toward making milk that people drink. To compensate, the industry pushes processed, dairy-based foods that contain a lot of decidedly non-dairy ingredients, including many that are genetically engineered.

Yogurt, ice cream, cream cheese, and flavored milk have become delivery systems for genetically modified sweeteners, especially high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – made from corn that has been genetically engineered by Monsanto to absorb Roundup herbicide and produce the Bt toxin.

It is also more toxic than regular sugar. A recent study compared two groups of rats, one fed HFCS and the other table sugar, both in doses equal to what many people eat. The rats fed HFCS had death rates 1.87 times higher than females on the sucrose diet. They also produced 26.4% fewer offspring.

Previous studies on rodents and humans tied HFCS consumption to metabolic problems such as insulin resistance, obesity and abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Yet HFCS is used by some of the most powerful brands in the IDFA leadership, including:

Skinny Cow, the low-fat ice cream brand of Nestle USA, which is represented on the IDFA board by Patricia Stroup, chair.

Blue Bunny, the flagship brand of Wells Enterprises, Inc., represented by Michael Wells, vice-chair.

Hood, represented by Jeffrey Kaneb, treasurer.

Consumer demand is pushing many food companies to remove HFCS from dairy products. For instance, IDFA member Yoplait has gone HFCS-free. But Yoplait still contains sugar, which likely comes from sugar beets that have been genetically engineered to absorb Roundup herbicide, and GMO corn starch.

You want GMO trans fat-laden cheese on that?

If you add non-dairy ingredients to cheese, it no longer meets the legal definition of cheese. So how is it that as much as one-fifth of what people think of as ‘cheese’ comprises vegetable oils (usually from GMO corn, soy, cottonseed or canola), including trans fats from partial hydrogenation?

By creating multiple definitions of ‘cheese’, regulators have created a system that allows the dairy industry to load up cheese with non-dairy products by renaming their products. A product containing at least 51% cheese can be called a ‘processed cheese food’. Products that contain less than 51% real cheese must be labeled a ‘processed cheese product’.

Prior to 2006, many of these cheese ‘foods’ and ‘products’ sold in grocery stores contained trans fats. But once the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began requiring packaged food makers to list trans fat content as a separate line item on the labels of foods sold in stores, most of the cheese made with trans fats has been sold through restaurants where it doesn’t have to be labeled.

That means consumers who frequently eat out are still eating a lot of trans fats with their cheese – they just don’t know it. Though as this article notes, consumers can still buy products at the grocery store that contain trans fats without knowing it-because food makers are allowed to claim “no trans fats” on the front of their package as long as the product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, an amount even the FDA admits can be dangerous because of the cumulative effect.

Trans fat is the worst type of dietary fat. Trans fats create inflammation, which is linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and other chronic conditions. They contribute to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

They can harm health in even small amounts: for every 2% of calories from trans fat consumed daily, the risk of heart disease rises by 23%. There is no safe level of consumption.

Kraft, the nation’s largest manufacturer of cheese, has largely phased out trans fats, but it hasn’t dropped the GMOs.

When Kraft reformulated Cheez Wiz, the company removed the cheese, leaving a taste of “axle grease” – in the words of a former Kraft food scientist who helped invent the original product. But Cheez Wiz still contains GMOs, in the form of canola oil and corn syrup.

Kraft is represented on the IDFA executive committee by Howard Friedman.

Stretching the limits of what ‘dairy’ means

Genetically modified ingredients like HFCS and trans fats are super cheap. This has pushed the dairy foods industry to use such ingredients to the point of stretching the limits of consumers’ understanding of what’s actually a dairy product.

Enter government regulators, who have had to step in to define just exactly what is – and isn’t – a legitimate ‘dairy’ product.

A ‘Frozen Dairy Dessert’ can’t be called ‘ice cream’ if it contains less than 10% milk fat. Statistics on the market share of ‘dairy desserts’ versus ice cream is unavailable, but even Breyer’s, known for its ‘all natural’ ice cream has converted about 40% of its ice creams to ‘dairy desserts’.

Why would the dairy industry embrace a declining amount of milk in dairy foods? As it turns out, breaking milk into its constituent parts and selling them separately has been an efficient way for the industry to eliminate waste and increase profits, even if there might be less actual milk in any one particular product.

Skim milk used to be a waste product that was either discarded or fed to farm animals. Now it’s sold as skim milk and fat-free dairy products (even though there’s little evidence dairy is the best diet food).

Once the dairy industry had successfully created a market for skim milk, it realized it had another problem on its hands: what to do with the glut of whole milk and extracted milk fat created by soaring sales of skim milk. The solution? Make more ‘cheese foods’ and ‘cheese products’. But that led to a new problem – what to do with all that cheese?

For a time, the federal government bought the industry’s excess cheese and butter, packing away a stockpile valued at more than $4 billion by 1983. Then, in 1995, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) created Dairy Management Inc, a nonprofit corporation, partially funded by the USDA (and your tax dollars), that defines its mission as increasing dairy consumption.

Dairy Management teamed up with restaurant chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut to launch a $12 million marketing campaign promoting pizza with extra cheese. (Remember, restaurants don’t have to label their cheese as containing GMO-laden trans fats).

The Dairy Management’s program directly benefitted Leprino Foods Company, supplier of cheese to both Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Pizza Hut lists ‘modifed food starch’ among the ingredients in its cheese. Modified food starch is another name for modified corn starch, which is most always made with GMO corn.

Leprino Foods is represented on IDFA’s board by Mike Reidy, who serves as secretary.

As long as the dairy industry’s fortunes continue to be built upon the sales of GMO-containing ‘dairy products’ and ‘cheese foods’, its principal lobbying group, the IDFA, will continue to spend millions to keep consumers from knowing what’s really in those foods.

This is not an industry that cares about farmers, or wholesome, healthy foods. What used to be a community of farmers selling real, whole foods has long since morphed into a processed food industry.

And as such, the industry, represented by the IDFA, will continue to fight tooth-and-nail against what they portray as “restrictive labeling requirements” that create “a straightjacket on innovation and marketing.”

Alexis Baden-Mayer is political director of the Organic Consumers Association.