Dairy COOL bill draws support amid melamine scare

by Jay Sjerven
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WASHINGTON — Amid growing concerns about the potential for melamine contamination of milk products and milk-derived ingredients imported from China, legislation aimed at extending country-of-origin labeling requirements to dairy products was introduced in the Senate and the Food and Drug Administration sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to the food industry with advice on ensuring ingredients imported from China contained no melamine.

In recent weeks, products manufactured with melamine-tainted milk or milk-derived ingredients from China were recalled from grocery shelves in several countries, including the United States. To date, there were two recalls of food products in the United States linked to melamine contamination. Tristar Food Wholesale Co., Inc. issued a recall of Blue Cat Flavor Drink manufactured in China, and seven Mr. Brown instant coffee and milk tea products manufactured in China were recalled by King Car Food Industrial Co. Ltd. Additionally, California and Connecticut food safety officials indicated tests showed melamine contamination in White Rabbit Creamy Candies imported from China.

Partly in response to such concerns, Senator Hillary Clinton of New York on Sept. 27 introduced the Dairy COOL (country-of-origin labeling) Act of 2008, S.3653, in the Senate for herself and on behalf of Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio. Country-of-origin labeling requirements as contained in the 2008 farm act and relating to meats, produce and nuts took effect Sept. 30. Ms. Clinton’s legislation sought to extend COOL requirements to dairy products.

"With one tainted food scare after another, consumers deserve to know exactly where their food is coming from," said Ms. Clinton on introducing her bill. "The recent concerns raised about contamination of milk products internationally is a clear reminder that it is critical to include dairy products in our country-of-origin labeling rules."

Mr. Feingold agreed, saying, "Truth in labeling is critical, and the recent news of contaminated Chinese dairy products and the radically different safety and enforcement standards in China are clear examples why. While the F.D.A. needs to do more to keep contaminated products out, consumers should have the ability to look for and choose dairy products made with milk produced by hard-working American dairy farmers as a sign of quality and to provide peace of mind."

Dairy COOL would require retailers of a product derived wholly or partly from milk or milk-derived ingredients designate where the covered dairy commodity or commodities were produced, originated or sourced, and each country in which the covered commodity was processed. The bill won support from some producer and consumer groups. The International Dairy Foods Association said it was reviewing the proposed legislation.

The F.D.A. on Oct. 10 issued a "Dear Colleague" letter to the U.S. food manufacturing industry regarding its "serious concern about the possibility that foods or ingredients produced in China and exported to the U.S. may be contaminated with melamine or its analogues."

The F.D.A. advised milk and milk products that may originate from China included condensed, dried and non-fat milk, condensed and dried whey, lactose powder, permeate powder, demineralized and partially demineralized whey powders, caseins, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, whey protein concentrate and milk protein concentrate.

The agency suggested three steps for the food industry to help protect public health. First, food manufacturers must know the precise origin of each milk-derived ingredient, including milk-derived ingredients that are sourced from countries other than China but may actually originate from China. Second, manufacturers must determine that milk-derived ingredients originating from China are free of melamine and its analogues prior to usage. And third, for food manufactured in the last 12 months that might still be on the shelf at retail or in stores elsewhere, U.S. food manufacturers should determine whether the food might contain any milk-derived ingredients from China. If any such foods exist, manufacturers should verify that they do not contain melamine or its analogues.

"In addition, it would be useful for manufacturers to be alert to the possibility that non-milk-derived ingredients from China that are or may be sold on the basis of protein content, such as soy protein, also could be contaminated with melamine," F.D.A. stated.

The agency said it would continue to work with Customs and Border Protection on sampling and testing dairy products or dairy-derived ingredients from China before they enter the U.S. and with state and local officials on sampling and testing products at the retail level.

This article can also be found in the digital edition of Food Business News, October 28, 2008, starting on Page 28. Click here to search that archive.

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