Dairy has been long governed by a series of rules known as "standards of identity." While these federal requirements have protected our products from imitations, the rules have also stymied innovation when not updated in a timely fashion. Such is the case with the proposed removal of the federally mandated, unique-to-dairy, front-panel labeling requirement when using non-nutritive sweeteners in flavored milk. Unfortunately, the relatively straightforward concept used in a host of diet drinks has confused and upset some consumers, making this an unfortunate public relations mishap for our industry. Let's take a step back and untangle the confusion.

Current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mandated rules require processors to label the front panel of dairy products that use the same no-calorie sweeteners, like aspartame, found in diet sodas and other sports drinks. The added front panel requirement has further hamstrung us in the modern-day marketing climate because fluid dairy products sweetened with low-cal options must be labeled with a nutrient content claim such as "no sugar added chocolate milk" or with a nonstandard term such as "dairy drink."

This outdated but still mandated standard of identity is in addition to the ingredient and nutrition labels required on the back of all food packages. It's this misconception surrounding dairy's extra labeling requirement that is causing some consumer groups to be misinformed and speak out against FDA's proposal with inaccurate commentary. To be fair, from a consumer perspective, it's understandable that there is misunderstanding because similar beverages such as diet drinks do not have additional labeling mandates.

A petition addressing this issue filed jointly by the National Milk Producers Federation and International Dairy Foods Association had greater importance when it was first submitted on March 16, 2009. During the four-year government delay, flavored milks have been reformulated with reduced sugar content to ensure access to school lunchrooms. However, we still need a full array of options to promote healthy eating. By updating FDA's rules, this proposal brings milk and a stable of 17 other dairy products into the current century and allows us to simply call them milk - with or without non-nutritive, low-cal sweeteners.

We encourage those who support this idea to speak out on safe and expanded product offerings. Formal public comments are due by May 21. Go to www.regulations.gov and search for FDA's proposed rule FDA-2009-P-0147-0012. By doing so, it will ensure the FDA that people actually understand this long overdue update.

This Hoard's Dairyman editorial appears on page 244 of the April 10, 2013.