"Clean label” and “clean eating” are becoming top priorities for young adult consumers. But there is no uniform definition – among consumers or food companies – on what constitutes clean label.

For consumers, clean label might mean a short list of recognizable ingredients. For food companies, clean label often means removing artificial flavors, colors and preservatives.

For dairy products, perhaps clean label should start with the milk. But should it extend to the feed that the cows eat? One company, Dannon, has developed unique partnerships with the dairy farmers who supply their brands with milk. That relationship encompasses non-GMO feed for some of its products. This is a trend the dairy industry should be watching closely.   

Customer-driven options  

“At Dannon, the shopper is at the center of everything, but there is no single shopper identity,” explained Michael Neuwirth, senior director of public relations, Danone North America. “Some moms are focused on avoiding growth hormones. Others prioritize animal welfare or the environment. An entirely different group of shoppers might select their yogurt based on high levels of protein, or limited fat and added sugars. So Dannon offers choices.”

Neuwirth said approximately 50% of Dannon’s total U.S sales are from the Dannon, Danimals and Oikos brands.

“These three brands are increasingly focused on naturality, and during 2017 and 2018 will switch to non-GMO ingredients as outlined in the Dannon Pledge,” said Neuwirth.

The pledge includes offering more products with non-GMO ingredients, labeling GM ingredients, using fewer and more natural ingredients, and sourcing milk from farms that Dannon knows. 

On-farm practices

Dannon is the first leading national yogurt company to partner directly with dairy farms.

“Dannon’s initiatives focus on three pillars: sustainable agriculture, which includes cow care; naturality, which includes offering some products with non-GMO ingredients; and transparency when it comes to labeling,” said Neuwirth.

The dairy farms that Dannon contracts with receive a fixed margin, regardless of input, which allows them to make changes to long-term farm management practices. Dannon and its dairy farmers use Validus certification to ensure socially responsible practices in on-farm production. They are also moving toward non-GMO feed for the milk supply in the Dannon brand in 2017. The Oikos and Danimals brands will follow.

McCarty Family Farms is one of Dannon’s dairy farm partners. A series of YouTube videos highlight the dairy’s focus on sustainability.

“This unique partnership, from the cow to the cup, allows us to do innovative things on the dairy side that are reflected in a cup of yogurt,” said Ken McCarty.

Dannon is not the only company partnering with dairy farmers. Last June, General Mills announced a strategic sourcing partnership with Organic Valley to increase organic dairy production over the next three years. [Editor’s note: See the April issue to read about the transition by fluid milk processor Clover Sonoma to non-GMO conventional milk.]

Science-based regulations

Will milk from cows fed non-GMO feed become the new clean label standard? The science indicates that it should not. A recent meta analysis of research indicates that “there is no detection of GMO proteins in milk or meat.”

A website, GMO Answers, explains that “genetically engineered DNA, or the novel proteins encoded therein, have never been detected in the milk, meat or eggs derived from animals fed genetically engineered feedstuffs.”

One third-party verification standard already requires non-GMO feed for dairy.

“The Non-GMO Project Standard requires dairy animals be fed a compliant diet for 30 days before achieving verification, and continuously thereafter. Animal feed is evaluated for GMO risk, and major high-risk ingredients are tested. The Standard requires traceability from the brand owner back to the farm,” said Annie Shannahan, Non-GMO Project Client Services Director.

Another issue for the dairy industry to follow is labeling of fermentation produced chymosin (FPC), used to produce approximately 90% of U.S. cheese. It is currently not labeled as GMO.

“In general, there is no genetic material in chymosin used in cheesemaking. This is because following fermentation of the genetically altered microorganisms that produces the enzyme, the chymosin is completely filtered from the production microorganism and cleaned of other impurities prior to it being used in cheesemaking,” said Emily Lyons, director of regulatory affairs and counsel for the International Dairy Foods Association.

At a recent IFT webinar, Tony Pavel, Cargill Inc.’s senior food lawyer, explained that both the Vermont GMO regulations (now pre-empted) and the EU regulations generally disregard GM feedstock and processing aids or enzymes in their GM regulations, whereas the Non-GMO Project includes them. The dairy industry must be proactive to ensure that science, not emotion, is used to formulate proposed GMO labeling regulations.