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Rise of a food villain: but is permeate as mild as milk?

You might not have heard of permeate a few months ago. It’s become a food villain, shunned by consumers. So what drove the vilification and exile of the mysterious milk substance?

After Fairfax revealed the product (a watery dairy byproduct) made up roughly 16% of milk, the media and public furore spawned a plethora of permeate-free milk products.

It’s not the first time permeate has been in the spotlight —  Fairfax picked up on the issue in April 2008 — so why the drastic action this time around?

Food and beverage company Lion’s external relations director Libby Hay says while there has been “a level of consumer awareness over time”, the company is merely responding to current consumer demands for “simpler, more authentic and less processed” food.

But is the demonisation of permeate really driven by consumer concerns? Partly, says Choice head of campaigns Matthew Levey, who says there’s been a rise in “what you could call … conscious consumerism”.

On one level it’s consumers but then it opens up this space for marketers to push other issues which aren’t grounded in evidence,” he said.

Dietitian Rosemary Stanton says food vilification is merely a routine marketing ploy used to sell new products.

Whole food groups … and whole food categories get demonised … these things don’t just pop up in the media by themselves. They usually pop up because somebody’s trying to market something else,” she said. ”Some people decided to market their milk as permeate free … to make ordinary milk sound horrific. The blogosphere then decided ‘what are they adding to our milk?’ and people started thinking ‘oh, there’s something nasty in milk’.”

Stanton compares the situation to the marketing of hormone-free chicken. ”There was a program years ago on television claiming that children were reaching puberty early because of hormones in chicken,” she said. While this was traced back to factory discharge in Mexico, marketers are still using it to sell chicken.

That led to some clever marketer saying ‘I’ll sell my chicken as hormone free’ … when no chicken in Australia has — now or ever — had added hormones,” she said.

Stanton says such stories are incredibly difficult to dispel. In this case, the dairy industry should have done more to defend itself.

I think the dairy industry, initially at least, didn’t seem to comment … The dairy industry should have spoken up and told people a few more facts. A bit more transparency would always help,” she said. ”You need people to speak up about things otherwise you end up getting this sort of crazy reaction to something that doesn’t really matter two hoots.”

RMIT senior lecturer in dairy science Dr Frank Sherkat says there needs to be greater regulation of product labelling. ”There should be a very strict rule on labelling by government agencies … and those companies who promote their products on the basis of permeate free, they should be held accountable,” he said.

But with Pura, Rev, Pauls and Aussie Farmers Direct all marketing permeate-free lines — and Woolworths and Coles about to join the party — it looks like the marketing machine has won this round.

17
  • 1
    Flat tyre
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Rather than permeate consumers should be more worried about products like rbGH

  • 2
    paddy
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    I think we should blame Firstdog for this appalling scandal.
    (I note he’s not at his desk today and is obviously in hiding until the storm blows over.)
    I mean really! Adding milk products to milk. It’s bloody unorstralian

  • 3
    David Allen
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m surprised my arsenic free line of soft drinks didn’t get a mention.

  • 4
    John Newton
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    Not too sure that Rosemary Stanton - who I respect enormously - is right there. I understand that hormones were once used in Australian chickens, but haven’t been for at least forty years. There’s no need to - because antibiotics perform the same function as growth promotants and are far more dangerous when routinely fed to animals that humans eat, many believing that such a practice is linked to antibiotic resistance in humans.

  • 5
    Bill Parker
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Paddy might right - First Dog is undoubtedly been sitting too close to some wind turbines.

  • 6
    mattholden
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Er … why the cynicism? Why shouldn’t milk be permeate-free? Cows don’t lactate permeate, do they? They lactate, you know, fresh, pure healthful milk – the stuff the big dairy companies market in their ads. So that’s what they should sell. Not something bulked up with the byproduct of another process.

  • 7
    mattholden
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    What’s more, if Crikey had broken the permeate story and got this result, you’d be crowing, not carping.

  • 8
    gikku
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    If it says “Milk” on the bottle, milk is what it should contain, nothing less.

  • 9
    Rosemary Stanton
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree with the comments about the use of antibiotics as growth promotants - a horrible practice, and a good reason to recommend those who eat chicken should choose organic products that do not add antibiotics to the food chain. But I think it was the incorrect assertions about hormones in chickens in Australia that allowed the industry to get away with the growth promotants and the use of hormone ear implants in feedlot beef cattle to be totally ignored.

    Australia and the US insist that hormones in beef production is not a problem, but the EU does not permit meat from hormone-implanted animals to be sold because they believe it has not been proven safe.

  • 10
    Hugh (Charlie) McColl
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    Once upon a time you could only buy milk or cream. When you take the cream out of whole milk you are left with “skim milk”. But when you market “Smart milk”, “Trim low fat milk”, “Lite milk” and a couple of others I can’t remember now, what are you getting? It’s something less than whole milk, it’s good for you because it is “low fat” or “boosted calcium” or “organic” so it is quite possible that it is just parts of whole milk with bits removed, all reconstituted (nothing non-milk added) to create a new ‘milk’ product that is less than the real thing but good for you. Oh and of course it is ‘processed’ food so there is GST added plus a whole lot more. This stuff only contains milk but it is not “whole” milk and we (happily apparently) pay through the nose for it. Are we suckers or are we getting exactly what we ask for?

  • 11
    SBH
    Posted Thursday, 19 July 2012 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    and which bakery chain advertises bread as 100% made in Australia?

  • 12
    Eddy B
    Posted Friday, 20 July 2012 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Permeate is a part of milk made by using a ultrafine filter that separates out the protein and milk fat, what is left is permeate (vitamins, minerals, lactose and water). It is added back to milk to ensure consistent standards of protein and fat. So it is milk!

    A literal interpretation of permeate free milk would be something that is just a solid lump of protein and fat. In this case it just means unfiltered milk.

    So now to make a standardised milk, the milk processors will be adding water to milk. I would think that permeate is much healthier and would taste much better.

  • 13
    Khan
    Posted Sunday, 22 July 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    What are suppliers supposed to do with the Permeate if they can’t put it into the milk? Down the drain? What? If there are no health effects and most people dont know the difference it seems like a fine way to make use of a dairy by product. Wouldn’t it also stretch the supply of milk so you can effectively supply more milk from the same number of cows?

  • 14
    Lee
    Posted Monday, 23 July 2012 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Much of our food is ‘standardised’, get over it. Do you really think ‘wholemeal’ bread contains the whole of the meal? No, it’s constructed with white flour and bran. Without the wheatgerm it doesn’t go rancid as quickly and has a better dough texture.

    Manufacturers blend. That is it. It helps produce a a consistent product from cows who don’t.

  • 15
    Ravenred
    Posted Wednesday, 25 July 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I want to know when someone’s going to pick up the issue of DiHydrogen Monoxide. This is a real and pressing issue which kills hundreds every year.

  • 16
    Christina Elisabeth
    Posted Wednesday, 25 July 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    The first I heard of permeates was last weekend, when I decided to watch TV for the first time in a long time. A Pura ad came on stating that their milk is permeate free. That’s it! That’s all the ad said. No context, no further information. It’s OK for those with enquiring minds who would ask ‘well, what on earth is a permeate and what are the implications of their inclusion in my milk?’ & use the answers to make an informed decision about their milk consumption. But how many people would ask this question and/or take the time to research the answer? Hard to see this permeate issue as anything more than a marketing ploy designed to increase profits by further blunting the critical faculties of the Australian public.

  • 17
    Sabre Bleu
    Posted Monday, 30 July 2012 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Nice one Ravenred.
    I thought that the only way that DiHydrogen Monoxide was a killer, was if you forgot to come up for breath.
    This sort of nonsense just permeates through conversations, and you’re just milking the opportunity to spread false concern.

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