WASHINGTON, February 1, 2012 -USDA’s long-awaited new school lunch standards, unveiled last week, were met with almost universal praise from schools groups, the food industry, academics and nutrition activists for their potential for more healthful meals for 32 million students in school meal programs. But a quiet undercurrent of discontent emerges from reading between the lines of generally laudatory statements from dairy industry trade groups and parsing of USDA’s final rule language.

The first new standards in more than 15 years reflect changes enacted in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 and recommendations from an Institute of Medicine committee convened during the Bush Administration. The commendations focus on the requirement to make fruits and vegetables available daily, increase whole grain content in foods and put more strict limits on calories (based on the age of children), saturated fat, trans fats and sodium. USDA says it received an unprecedented 132,000 public comments on the proposed standards.

The International Dairy Foods Association and National Milk Producers Federation were among many food industry groups that issued statements commending the USDA rule. IDFA liked it for “highlighting the nutritional role that dairy products play.” NMPF praised the standards for continuing “to stress the nutritional benefits of low-fat and fat-free milk and dairy products.” But both also made clear their dissatisfaction with USDA’s decision to ban low-fat chocolate milk, allowing only fat-free, skim milk with flavors and added sugar.

IDFA’s statement raised concern that restrictions on flavored milk could reduce milk consumption in schools in favor of less healthy alternatives. “We are disappointed that USDA has placed limits on milk varieties ahead of constraints on competing beverages,” said IDFA President Connie Tipton. “Eliminating low-fat flavored milks, which kids like, and still allowing a wide variety of a la carte beverages like juice beverages, sports drinks and soda at schools will reduce milk consumption.”

While NMPF said it would have preferred the rules allow low-fat flavored milk, CEO Jerry Kozak said, “it’s essential that chocolate milk, in particular, remain available in school cafeterias to assure children are getting the nutrients milk provides.” NMPF says research shows that milk consumption can drop 35 percent or more when flavored milk is removed.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, explaining the milk decision, said that many parents and nutrition and health advocates favored the proposed requirement to limit flavor to fat-free milk, while some went further and called a total ban on flavored milk. “However, more commenters stated that flavored low-fat (1% percent or ½%) milk should be allowed,” USDA said. 

While some said flavored fat-free milk isn’t always available and has a shorter shelf life than low-fat varieties, others expressed concern that skim milk would not be as popular, potentially reducing both milk consumption and participation in school meal programs altogether.


Original story printed in February 1, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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