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Jul 19, 2012

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

You probably hadn’t heard of permeate a few months ago. And yet now it’s a food super villain. How did we get here, asks Georgie Moore?

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.

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17 thoughts on “Rise of a food villain: but is permeate as mild as milk?

  1. Flat tyre

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

  2. paddy

    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

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

  4. John Newton

    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

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

  6. mattholden

    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

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

  8. gikku

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

  9. Rosemary Stanton

    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

    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?