Washington Insider -- Friday

Defining Issue of Milk

Here’s a quick monitor of Washington farm and trade policy issues from DTN’s well-placed observer.

US Ag Exports Fell Less than Imports In July

Exports of U.S. agricultural products declined to $10.40 billion in July, compared to $10.42 billion in June, while imports slipped to $9.68 billion for the month compared to $9.97 billion in June, according to USDA's Latest U.S. Agricultural Trade Data update.

The shifts in imports and exports still resulted in U.S. agriculture registering a trade surplus for July of $718 million, up from $449 million in June.

This brings cumulative U.S. agricultural export values to $119.71 billion so far in Fiscal 2017 compared to $107.33 billion at this point in Fiscal 2016 while imports now total $99.86 billion compared to $94.76 billion through July of Fiscal 2016. The cumulative trade surplus is at $19.85 billion compared to $12.57 billion.

USDA in August adjusted its trade forecasts for Fiscal 2017 to $139.8 billion and imports to $116.2 billion for a surplus of $23.6 billion.

USDA Releases Its Study on GE Labeling Issues

USDA has now released its study on providing consumers access to information via the National Bioengineered Disclosure Standard. In the report titled, "Study of Electronic or Digital Link Disclosure," USDA acknowledged much of what most probably knew – technology is a key to relaying the information, but technology itself presents a challenge. The availability of Internet/broadband and/or wifi networks, especially in rural areas, is one of the keys.

The three conclusions reached in the study are that "Education for consumers and retailers around electronic and digital disclosure links and bioengineered foods will improve access and understanding," the report said. "Offline options, such as those that provide the bioengineering disclosure through phone or text message, will increase access for consumers who lack smartphones or broadband access." And their final point is that "Developing or endorsing user-friendly scanner apps will ease the consumer experience." They also note that technology will continue to change, "resulting in shifting retailer and consumer adoption. Thoughtful action can help to make sure that consumers are able to use such methods to effectively access food information."

Washington: Insider: Defining Issue of Milk

Dairy groups are squaring off against soy, almond, and rice producers on legislation that would prohibit use of such terms as “milk” or “ice cream” in product names such as soymilk, “if the product isn't from a hooved animal.”

The ag industries have been concerned over “misuse” of product names, especially since products labeled “soymilk” entered the mainstream two decades ago, Bloomberg is reporting this week. Dairy groups argued the term broke the Food and Drug Administration's rules defining “milk” as a dairy product. Plant-based groups said the “soy” or “almond” before the “milk” acted as a qualifier and thus the label wasn't misleading. The FDA hasn't ruled for either side.

Now, dairy groups are pushing the Dairy Pride Act in an effort to achieve what they have been unable to do through lobbying the FDA on the matter, Bloomberg says. Eleven entities have lobbied on the measure this year, with dairy interests significantly outspending the plant-food side. The “big money” involved has gotten attention from the media.

Doug DiMento, a spokesman for Agri-Mark Inc., a dairy co-op, told Bloomberg that the industry hopes its proposed legislation will be included in a vehicle such as the 2018 farm bill if it doesn't advance as a stand-alone measure.

There is another side to the issue, of course; Alicia Rockwell, a spokeswoman for almond producer Blue Diamond Growers, told Bloomberg there is no consumer confusion and the legislation is unnecessary.

Dairy producers disagree and groups supporting the Act have spent nearly $300,000 lobbying through June, Bloomberg says, while those in opposition spent nearly $40,000 in that period. The group points out that the spending totals are for “all lobbying, however, not just on the Act.”

The Good Food Institute, a vegan group, said plant-based producers have been waiting 20 years for a definitive position from the FDA. A group allied with the GFI petitioned the FDA in 1997, asking the agency to recognize “soymilk” as the established or common name to be used in labels to identify a beverage of this nature.

The GFI recently submitted its own petition asking the FDA for an affirmative ruling to allow labeling of non-dairy products with “dairy” terminology.

Still, nothing has happened in the last 20 years that makes it OK to combine plant and nut powders with water, sugar, emulsifiers--and call it “milk,” the National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jim Mulhern said in a press release last month.

“We are going to be looking for every opportunity to help move forward the Dairy Pride Act,” Chris Galen, a spokesman for the group, told Bloomberg. “We will continue to ask regulators to take enforcement action.”

Blue Diamond Growers spent about $24,000 lobbying Congress on issues including the Act over the first and second quarters of this year, Bloomberg says. The Plant Based Food Association spent $14,000 lobbying Congress on different issues, including the bill. The group says the word “milk” in plant-based foods and beverages helps shoppers understand alternatives to dairy.

“This is no attempt to fool consumers,” Michele Simon, executive director of the association, told Bloomberg. “It's simply trying to convey alternatives to products consumers are used to.”

The association is actively lobbying against the Act now and will continue to do so, she said. “We will as long as we have to until the bill is dead,” she said.

DiMento, the Agri-Mark spokesman, told Bloomberg that the legislation seeks to protect dairy's good name. “We are a dairy farmer-owned co-op so we firmly believe milk comes from cows,” he said. Agri-Mark Inc. spent $20,000 lobbying in the first and second quarters of this year, according to the BGOV analysis.

Boyd Schaufelberger, vice president of Holstein Association USA, spoke on the labeling controversy at a farm bill listening session hosted by the House Agriculture Committee last week in Illinois. “After milking animals for 40 years I've never been able to milk an almond,” he said.

Still, controversies of this type are extremely difficult and tend to make regulatory agencies earn their pay—but it does not seem unreasonable that regulators lay out consistent criteria that help understand various products. Such standards are important to producers and depend on tradition as well as science. Thus, the procedures used to choose and select should be watched closely by producers as they are applied, Washington Insider believes.

Want to keep up with events in Washington and elsewhere throughout the day? See DTN Top Stories, our frequently updated summary of news developments of interest to producers. You can find DTN Top Stories in DTN Ag News, which is on the Main Menu on classic DTN products and on the News and Analysis Menu of DTN’s Professional and Producer products. DTN Top Stories is also on the home page and news home page of online.dtn.com. Subscribers of MyDTN.com should check out the US Ag Policy, US Farm Bill and DTN Ag News sections on their News Homepage.

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