This fall could deliver another round in a Washington food fight, as three congressmen last month re-introduced a bill that aims to define the term “natural cheese.”
The supporters of the CURD Act include Kraft Heinz Co. KHC, +0.52% and the International Dairy Foods Association. Representatives for both Kraft and the trade group described the bill as an effort to preserve cheese makers’ ability to differentiate “natural cheese” from “process cheese” in supermarkets so that consumers know what they’re buying.
But Consumer Reports doesn’t see it that way, and it’s among the groups against the measure, whose full name is the Codifying Useful Regulatory Definitions Act. The nonprofit organization has argued the bill would “add to consumer confusion at the supermarket and undermine ongoing efforts to make food labeling clearer and more consistent.” Consumer Reports says the CURD Act would allow cheese to be labeled “natural” even if it contains a food dye or if it was produced using added hormones or other substances that weren’t widely viewed as natural in a recent survey. And the bill would undermine the Food and Drug Administration’s ongoing process to define the term “natural,” according to the nonprofit. The FDA collected public comments on the term in 2015, but it hasn’t taken action so far.
The International Dairy Foods Association has pushed back on that concern related to the FDA’s process. “Because the term ‘natural cheese’ is used to define a general category or type of cheese product, it does not fall within the scope of this process and must be addressed separately. This proposed legislation does that,” said Dave Carlin, the trade group’s senior vice president for legislative affairs and economic policy, in a statement.
The bill’s sponsors in the House are two Democrats — Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon — and one Republican, Rep. Billy Long of Missouri. They re-introduced the CURD Act in late September after the measure failed to win passage in the House last December. The bill did pass the Senate last year, and it was re-introduced in that chamber this year, with backing from Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden and other lawmakers.
The CURD Act also has faced opposition from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a watchdog group, as well as the Good Food Institute, which advocates for plant-based alternatives to dairy products and meat. The center noted last year that the bill could “prevent the term ‘natural’ from being used on non-dairy cheese alternatives that may otherwise rightly be considered natural by consumers.” Representatives for the center and institute said this week that they remain opposed to the measure.
New Jersey Democratic Rep. Frank Pallone helped prevent the CURD Act from passing the House in December, as he spoke against the measure and voiced the same concerns aired by consumer advocates and supporters of plant-based alternatives. A spokeswoman for Pallone, who is the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s chairman, didn’t respond to a question this week about whether his stance on the bill has changed.
Pittsburgh-based Kraft Heinz, the Washington-based International Dairy Foods Association and privately held, Wisconsin-based cheese maker Sargento Foods Inc. have disclosed that they’ve engaged in lobbying on the CURD Act this year. Kraft’s overall disclosed spending on Washington lobbying was $920,000 last year, followed by an outlay of $570,000 in this year’s first half, while the corresponding figures for the trade group are $1.32 million and $620,000, according to OpenSecrets.org data.
Sargento’s disclosed spending on influencing Washington was $100,000 last year, and it already has matched that in this year’s first half, with an outlay of $100,000. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The overall disclosed spending on lobbying by Consumer Reports was $210,000 last year, followed by an outlay of $70,000 in this year’s first half, while the Center for Science in Public Interest and Good Food Institute have disclosed spending $50,000 and $30,000, respectively, over the past year and a half.