Fear and paranoia permeate milk marketing

If anyone is ever looking for evidence of the divide that exists between some Australian media representatives and Australian agriculture, then they need look no further than the recent controversy that erupted over the use of permeate in milk processing.

Permeate is a technical term used to describe the clear liquid containing lactose, vitamins and minerals that is one component that can be separated from whole milk by filtration. It is sometimes added to or subtracted from milk in varying amounts (both in Australia and overseas) to standardise the composition of fresh milk, which the Australian Food Standards Code decrees must contain at least 3.2% fat and 3% protein. Without the use of permeate, the composition of processed milk varies throughout the year depending on seasons and other factors.

The ‘Today Tonight’ current affairs program recently ran a program that ‘exposed’ the use of permeate in the milk industry, replete with an anonymous industry whistleblower, and a reporter dressed in a white laboratory coat for extra authority. The tone of the report can be gauged from the following transcript:

What dairy producers are putting in your milk – and there’s a lot of it – will shock you. If you think the milk you drink is pure and straight from the cow, it’s time to think again.

Milk is being tampered with, and waste products are being added to it. Now for the first time, an industry whistleblower has come forward to spill the beans.

The whistleblower claimed he had to stay anonymous, because he feared repercussions if the ‘industry’ discovered his identity. (Exactly how the dairy industry had kept this practice a secret for so long, despite the many thousands of workers who have access to this so-called secret was not revealed.)

The report then involved an extensive interview with a milk manufacturer who does not use permeate (and who stood to gain market share as a consequence of the revelations, if consumers were sufficiently convinced that permeate presents a risk to them).

At no stage did the report identify how long this terrible practice had been occurring, or whether it also occurred overseas.

Almost immediately, major retailers responded by saying that henceforth, their home-brand milk products would no longer contain permeate. Exactly why they decided this was not spelled out, but the inference was that there might be health or safety issues associated with permeate use. How they would test or check to make sure no permeate was used was also not clarified, and nor was it mentioned that it is not possible to test whether or not milk has permeate added.

If dairy processors choose not to use permeate, and use that fact as a marketing angle to convince consumers to pay extra that is a great outcome.

Unfortunately, the way Today Tonight approached this story created a very strong impression that permeate makes milk unsafe, and that consumers should be fearful and avoid drinking milk which contains it. There is absolutely no evidence or justification for this, as the representative of Choice mentioned when interviewed. But this was ‘drowned out’ by the overall shock-horror tone of the program, which has unnecessarily created doubt in consumer’s minds and damaged the reputation of the Australian dairy industry.

Keep up-to-date with discussions of current issues in Australian and international agriculture policy by visiting the Australian Farm Institute’s blog and chat room ‘Ag Forum'.

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