Is There Glue in Those Cheese Slices? (Or is it MPC?)
By Alexis Lathem
Dairy farmers here in the US, like their fellow farmers in Mexico and elsewhere, are feeling the squeeze of globalization.
If there is anything that might be called the perfect, globalized food, it is MPC.
What is MPC?
Milk Protein concentrate (MPC) is a cheap, milk-derived product that is being dumped on the global market at approximately half the price of US milk. Processors use the cheap concentrates in place of domestic nonfat dry milk to make cheese, butter, ice cream, diet drinks, and a host of other products. Imports of cheap MPC have sky rocketed in the last few years; MPC now displaces about five percent of domestic milk, costing US dairy farmers $5 billion a year.
The cost to taxpayers is also substantial: under the dairy price support program, the USDA is obliged to buy all the domestic dry milk displaced by MPC imports. MPC has increased the cost of the support program by $572 million from 1996 to 2000.
"All that MPCs are is a back door way of getting inexpensive imported milk proteins into the US, which displaces domestic milk, which gets purchased by the CCC as part of the dairy price support program," says Steven Krikava of Land OLakes.
According to a General Accounting Office (GAO) report, MPC imports grew rapidly from 1990 to 1999, from 805 metric tons to 44,878 metric tons, and nearly doubled between 1998 and 1999. Six countries New Zealand, Ireland, Germany, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada accounted for 95% of the imports in 1999.
In contrast to MPC, nonfat dry milk imports are strictly regulated and carry higher tariffs. The GAO report also suggested that foreign exporters might be circumventing trade rules by disguising nonfat dry milk as MPC in order to elude the import restrictions on dry milk. MPC has also turned up at US dairy processing plants in bags labeled as "glue."
MPC is produced by an ultra-filtration process which removes everything smaller than a protein, separating out the whey, lactose and other ingredients in milk, resulting in a substance that is 40 to 90 percent protein. In comparison, nonfat dry milk is 35 percent protein. Higher protein content means higher yields for cheese producers.
But is it the same as milk? Food processors say it is. Last year, food manufacturers petitioned the FDA to change the definition of milk to include a liquid form of MPC. Dairy farmers call this dishonest.
"Its like getting Tang instead of orange juice," says John Bunting, a New York dairy farmer who has written extensively about MPC for the Milkweed journal.
In truth, we dont really know the nutritional value of MPC or even if it is safe for humans to consume. Until recently, MPC was used in glues and other industrialized non-food products. When the GATT was ratified in 1994, because MPC was not considered a food, it was not subject to import restrictions. Food manufacturers saw an opportunity to use a cheap, tariff-free product that slipped through the regulatory cracks as a way to increase their bottom line.
Legally , MPC is not a food. MPC does not have Generally Regarded As Safe status (GRAS), which is necessary for a food ingredient to be deemed legal under FDA rules. Nevertheless, millions of pounds of MPC flood into the US, finding its way into $10 billion worth of food sold in retail stores and fast food restaurants.
FDA rules specify that any human food product containing an unapproved food ingredient is adulterated and illegal. Although the use of MPC in food products is widespread (it is blatantly listed as an ingredient in Kraft singles) FDA has chosen to look the other way.
While dairy produced in the US must meet rigorous quality and sanitary standards, MPC enters the country uninspected and without country of origin labeling. Imports of MPC have been traced from countries with poor or nonexistent safety regulations, where foot-and-mouth and other infectious diseases are endemic. One source of MPC, Apollo Ingredients, has listed its "Radioactivity index [at] Max. 50 Bq/kg."
"That level did not occur by mere coincidence," says Bunting, who maintains that there is good evidence that MPC coming into the US from China originates from the Chernobyl area.
Defenders of the use of MPC say it is a necessary ingredient that cant be sourced domestically. True, MPC is not manufactured here in the US. The International Dairy Food Association (IDFA) argues that US producers have no incentive to manufacture a "more expensive, value-added product" because they have a guaranteed buyer in the US government for their nonfat dry milk.
More expensive? Value-added? MPC is favored over dry milk because it is cheaper; it is generally regarded as a low-end product that goes into tasteless pseudo-foods like cheese slices and diet drinks. According to Bunting, New Zealand (the origin of the majority of MPC coming into the US) exports all of its MPC because it makes an inferior cheese. Moreover, what makes it profitable for New Zealand companies is the strength of the US dollar they get for it.
In the Spring of 2001, legislation calling for tariffs on MPC and casein imports was introduced. Senate bill S. 847 and House bill H.R. 1786 so far have strong support, with thirty and fifty co-sponsors, respectively. However, it has been met with staunch opposition from food industry giants: Kraft, Nestle, SlimFast, Sorrento, and the IDFA, among others, lined up to bat for MPC. (Vermonters will remember IDFA as the plaintiff in the lawsuit against Vermonts rBGH labeling law). Cheap imports of casein and MPC are necessary, they argue, to maintain competitiveness, and furthermore, the imposition of tariffs would violate international trade agreements. In a comment on the House bill, Kraft wrote:
"Kraft, a major US food producer, stands to be injured by the enactment of H.R. 1786 in two respects. First, because Kraft is a purchaser of MPC for use in manufacturing various finished products, the competitiveness of these finished food products would be significantly impaired in the marketplace. Second, because HR 1786 would violate our countrys obligations under its trade agreements for imports of MPC, casein, caseinates, and casein derivatives, Kraft and other food exporters would be vulnerable to injury from demands for compensation ..."
The letter went on to threaten that Kraft would be forced to relocate its plants abroad: "The bill would inevitably encourage the location of manufacturing facilities where the cost of these ingredients would be lower," it said.
IDFA has been a vehement opponent of the bill. IDFA (which has been pushing for USDA to drop the price support level for domestic milk) has argued that it is the dairy price support program that is to blame for the flood of MPC imports, because the price supports act as a disincentive for producers to make anything other than plain old, unadulterated milk.
While the dairy program may be a "disincentive" for the manufacture of MPC, it is surely not the only one. Would US producers of MPC be expected to compete with the $7 price of imports from New Zealand - almost half the price of domestic dry milk? What would be the incentive to take a wholesome, quality product that has been a dietary staple for centuries, and turn it into a low-end product that is only good for pseudo-cheese and diet drinks, a product which is, moreover, not even legal in food?
Reviewing the comments in support of MPC imports, Bunting had this to say about the corporate slap in the face to American farmers:
"If you take all the comments from corporations, including American flag-waving corporations, you will not find one that defends American farmers. Distilled down to the essence, they all insist they need these low-cost, imported inputs. MPC users are not selling their products in Bangladesh - they are food products in America, and getting top dollar to boot."
Currently, milk prices are the lowest theyve been in decades. Dairy farmers in Vermont are borrowing thousands of dollars a month, hoping to float through the current crisis. The federal government has not delivered on its promised payments through the new Farm Bill. While MPC is not the sole culprit, the National Milk Producers Federation has made the case that MPC imports are pulling prices downward. It has been argued that all it takes to tip the balance between supply and demand is a three percent dip or rise in the milk supply. That would mean that MPC imports, amounting to a five percent increase in supply, is enough to push milk prices downward.
But the much larger problem is food and agriculture globalization, of which MPC is a sympton. MPC should act as a red flag warning us of the dangers globalization poses to our food safety and security. The safety and quality of the food we eat diminishes in direct proportion to the distance it travels from seed to plate. The rise in food borne pathogens with the advent of globalization has been acknowledged by the corporate food industry itself. A recent article in the Food Technology journal stated:
"The globalization of Americas food supply increased substantially during the 1990s. Correspondingly, so did the risk to American consumers of acquiring a food borne parasite. In 1990, about 13 species of parasitic animals were of concern to food scientists in the US. Today that figure has multiplied by more than a factor of eight."
In short if we fail to protect local food economies, we can expect to find glue or worse in our cheese slices.
--Family Farm Defenders and other groups are calling for a boycott of Kraft. To find out more, contact them at POB 1772, Madison WI 53701. Phone: 608- 260-0900.
--Contact your senators and representatives and ask them to support H.R. 1786 and S. 847.
The Milkweed, March, 2002 and August, 2002. "Got MPC?" by Robert Schubert, Crop Choice, July, 2002. Orlandi, Palmer A., Chu, Dan-My T., Bier, Jeffrey W., Jackson, George, J. "Parasites and the Food Supply." Food Technology, April 2002. Vol. 56, No. 4: 72. Bailey, Kenneth. "Implications of Dairy Imports: The Case of Milk Protein Concentrates." Staff Paper #353. June 2002. Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, College of Agricultural Sciences, Pennsylvania State University. National Milk Producers Federation website: nmpf.org. General Accounting Office: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d01326.pdf. Apollo Dairy: http://www.apollodairy.com/html/casein.html#milkpro40
from Rural Vermont's Farm Policy Network News, Issue #16, October, 2002. To subscribe, contact Rural Vermont at 15 Barre Street, Montpelier, VT 05602 (802) 223-7222.