by SUSAN MANN
Canadian dairy farmers are losing $220 million a year due to imports of a concentrated protein from the United States, called diafiltered milk, that’s being used in cheese production.
And to fix the problem, dairy farmer organizations are calling on the federal government to enforce Canada’s national cheese compositional standards, which have been in place since 2008. Last week, Dairy Farmers of Canada and the Quebec dairy producer organization, Les Producteurs de lait du Québec, held a joint press conference in Montreal to outline their dissatisfaction that the federal government hasn’t yet enforced the standards.
“We are really perplexed why such a simple solution seems to be so complicated for them (the government),” Dairy Farmers of Canada president Wally Smith said in a telephone interview.
Government officials told Dairy Farmers of Canada annual policy conference delegates in February “they would move on it quickly but they needed a bit more time,” he explained. “We had expected some action by now.”
The cheese standards stipulate the minimum percentage for the protein used in cheese making that has to be sourced from milk. Smith said the minimum percentage is different for each cheese. For cheddar, its 83 per cent, and for standard pizza mozzarella, its about 60 per cent.
Those cheeses are key because they use the most volume of milk or ingredient, he explained.
Diafiltered milk is 85 per cent protein, which is almost “a pure protein,” Smith said. It’s a milk product that has gone through another level of filtering of ultra-filtered milk “so the concentration of protein has increased. Also, lactose has been washed out of the product so when it’s used in cheese processing there is no or very little waste.”
The product is displacing the use of protein from Canadian milk in cheese making. Diafiltered milk imports have been ramping up over the past number of years, he said. Dairy Farmers had lobbied the previous Conservative government to take action.
Diafiltered milk, which is imported into Canada as a slurry, can be considered a milk protein isolate because it’s a pure protein. However, it’s not powdered as isolates and milk protein concentrates are, Smith said.
Al Mussell, agricultural economist and owner of Guelph-based Agri-Food Economic Systems, said last year, 27,000 tonnes of diafiltered milk and milk protein isolates were imported into Canada.
The federal government said it’s working on a solution. Guy Gallant, communications director for Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Lawrence MacAulay said by email that the use of imported diafiltered milk in cheese production is “of the highest priority to our government. In fact, it was the first file to be studied by the (House of Commons) Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food because any decision must be reached in the most transparent and accountable way, and with Canadian dairy farmers at the table.”
Gallant said the government wants dairy farmers “engaged in this conversation so that we can ensure that we work together on finding a sustainable solution.”
Smith said the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is responsible for ensuring processors comply with the cheese compositional standards. One reason the agency hasn’t enforced the standards may be because it has been “underfunded for a long time” and has had to focus more on consumer-driven complaints. “I don’t think it was really high on their priority list.”
There’s also a discrepancy in how the product is classified by two different federal departments, Smith said. The Canada Border Services Agency considers diafiltered milk to be an ingredient and the product can come into Canada, mainly from the United States, duty free.
Under the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico “there has never been any kind of tariff on any protein moving freely across the border,” he noted. However, “this is not a border issue. This is a domestic, Canadian issue in that the regulations for our own country are not being followed.”
CFIA, on the other hand, considers diafiltered milk to be milk, he said. That means the cheese compositional standards don’t apply to it.
Dairy producer organizations consider the product to be an ingredient and “it needs to be classified as such,” Smith said. “It is not milk.” A person cannot buy this product from a store and drink it, he said.
Smith explained that if the cheese standards were being enforced it would mean, for cheddar as an example, processors in Canada would be able to use no more than 17 per cent of the diafiltered milk ingredient in making the cheese and the rest of the product would have to be made from milk.
Mussell said the federal government might not be able to enforce the standards. The federal cheese compositional regulations “deal with the origin of casein in cheese.” Casein is the main protein found in milk.
He said it’s his understanding from talking to food scientists that “if you sample the casein in cheese, you cannot attribute the origin of it.” That means regulators can’t tell, using scientific, laboratory analysis of casein, whether it comes from milk or ingredients, such as milk protein isolates or diafiltered milk.
This applies to the vast majority of cheeses, including cheddar and mozzarella. For soft, unripened cheeses “there may have been some limited success in being able to, perhaps, infer the origin of the casein,” he noted.
Ironically, the imports of diafiltered milk are coming to Canada from the United States, but American cheese makers don’t use it to make their domestic cheeses, Agropur Cooperative senior vice president Dominique Benoit said in a written transcript of the March 9 meeting of the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food.
The co-op has annual sales totaling nearly $6 billion and has 28 plants in eight provinces along with operations in the United States. It processes 30 per cent of Canada’s milk production. It also has 6,000 employees and is owned by 3,367 dairy producers, including some in Ontario.
Diafiltered milk is being used in Canada because it’s a way to bring in cheaper protein, he said. When asked by a committee member if Agropur uses the product in its Canadian production facilities, Benoit said the company competes with major players in the Canadian market and “we have no choice but to use the same tools as others.” BF