Fake dairy products continue to be sold in Wisconsin despite complaints

Jan Shepel
Dairy experts say mislabeled, imitation products continue to be sold in Wisconsin supermarkets and grocery stores even though they “illegally incorporate dairy’s standardized nomenclature.” Complaints to the Food Safety Division during the past year “have yielded virtually no response to obvious violations of state and federal food labeling and butter grading laws,” they say.

MADISON – Two well-known dairy experts brought concerns with various fake “dairy” products to the citizen policy board of the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection March 3 in Madison. They said they have complained over many months to the department’s Food Safety Division about what they called “fraudulent sales” of these misbranded, fake “dairy” products.

Pete Hardin, editor and publisher of The Milkweed and Dr. Robert Bradley, emeritus professor in the Department of Food Science at UW-Madison, appeared before the board to complain that these products continue to be sold in Wisconsin supermarkets and grocery stores even though they “illegally incorporate dairy’s standardized nomenclature.” Earlier complaints to the Food Safety Division during the past year, they said, “have yielded virtually no response to obvious violations of state and federal food labeling and butter grading laws.”

The state agency’s Food Safety Division is the federal Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) partner agency for enforcing food safety and labeling laws in Wisconsin.

Since they were unhappy with the lack of action from that division, the men have now filed a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division at DATCP and wanted to bring the issue to the attention of the policy board. They said they see these fake dairy products as clear violations of butter grading laws and labeling rules that govern how products can be presented to consumers for sale in Wisconsin. The two focused on fake “dairy” products they found in local grocery stores.

Pete Hardin

“Consumers in ‘America’s Dairyland’ have relatively high standards and tastes, when it comes to cheese,” Hardin said. “So, the fraudulent sale of adulterated, misbranded imitations labeled as ‘Cheddar Cheese’ and ‘Mozzarella Cheese’ denigrate the state’s largest agricultural industry: dairy.  Roughly 85 percent of farm milk produced in Wisconsin goes into the cheese vat.  Wisconsin’s dairy industry exists on its reputation for delivering quality cheeses.”

In a bit of irony, Bradley and Hardin made their complaints to the DATCP board about the fake dairy products the same day that the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association announced their judges’ top picks in the World Championship Cheese contest – held every other year in Madison.

According to the complaint from Hardin and Bradley, FDA’s regulations state that a food is deemed “misbranded” if the labeling on it is “fake or misleading”; if it is offered for sale under the name of another food unless the label bears the word “imitation” immediately followed by the name of the food being imitated – as in “imitation Cheddar cheese.”

If the food that is being sold pretends to be a food for which there is a standard of identity – as there is for dairy products – it is also considered to be “misbranded” and illegal for sale.

They told the board that “adulterated” foods are those that feature the “absence, substitution or addition of constituents” according to FDA regulations.

Among the products they brought to the board’s attention, during the public appearance section of the meeting, were “dairy-free Cheddar cheese” and “dairy-free Mozzarella cheese” both marketed by the Gardener Cheese Company in Kingston, N.Y. and both purchased recently at a Woodman’s Supermarket in the Madison area.

Dairy experts say products such as this package of dairy-free 'cheese' continue to be sold in Wisconsin supermarkets and grocery stores even though they “illegally incorporate dairy’s standardized nomenclature."

The “Cheddar” product’s ingredients included: cultured cashew cream, modified food starch, high oleic sunflower oil, salt, natural flavors, yeast extract, annatto (color), Konjac, xanthum gum and powdered cellulose added to prevent caking. “With the exception of salt and annatto, we believe that possibly all the other ingredients listed are not allowable ingredients for Cheddar cheese, according to FDA,” Hardin said, “Thus, the product is misbranded and adulterated.”

He added that by their reading of FDA’s rules it would appear that this product also fails to be properly and prominently labeled as “imitation.”

They also showed the board “Violife Mozzarella Shreds”, a product that is imported from Greece and is also being sold by a Madison grocery chain. “This product’s list of ingredients fails to comply with FDA’s standards of identity for Mozzarella. By labeling the product as ‘Mozzarella’ the distributor is deceptively and fraudulently selling an adulterated, misbranded product,” Hardin said.

Unhappy with the lack of action, dairy experts filed a complaint with the Consumer Protection Division at DATCP over fake dairy product violations.

That product’s ingredient list includes coconut oil, potato and corn starch, salt, vegan-sourced mozzarella flavor, olive extract, beta carotene, vitamin B12 and powdered cellulose to prevent caking. “Virtually all of the above ingredients violate FDA’s standards of identity for products sold as ‘mozzarella’,” Hardin said.

He told the board that he and Bradley consider highly deceptive the phrase “just like” that appears on the product label. The product, Hardin said, “is a nutritional fraud and decidedly NOT ‘just like’ Mozzarella.” This product’s nutritional labeling finds no protein and no calcium – both of which would be present in real Mozzarella, he added.

Hardin urged the department to halt the sale of these fake cheese products and similar ones that “fraudulently abuse the good name of dairy products with standards of identity dictated by the FDA.”

Over the past year, Hardin said, periodic complaints have been made to the Division of Food Safety regarding these, and numerous other “fake” dairy products. “The Food Safety Division seems to take a ‘hands off’ approach to such complaints. So, we have complained to the Bureau of Consumer Protection.

“These products are a complete fraud upon Wisconsin consumers. Please remove them from retail shelves in Wisconsin,” he added.

Butter problems too

Bradley told the board that the standards for butter making were created in 1923. Butter, he said, is to be made exclusively from milk or cream or both and the final product is supposed to have not less than 80 percent milk fat by weight. (Salt and coloring agents are allowed.)

He commented on a “Euro-style cultured vegan product” that is made from coconut oil. California allowed it to be sold there, “so now they’re going everywhere else,” he said. “This isn’t butter. It’s margarine.”

What the makers of these “fake” butter products don’t disclose, he added, is that in order to make their products solid, the oil in them has to be hydrogenated – and that kind of oil is widely considered to be unhealthy.

Bradley was critical of the FDA for not coming forward with standards and rulings on fake “milk” products made from nuts and other plants. This lack of action on margarines masquerading as “butter” is a continuation of that.

He said that there were problems with “Maslo Polski butter” and “Maslo Polski butter 60 percent,” imported from Poland, and found for sale at Andy’s Meat Market, near Endeavor. Neither product bears the required USDA or Wisconsin butter grading mark.

The two products are derived from identical ingredients but have different nutritional content. The 60 percent product, Bradley said, should be labeled as “imitation” since there is no such thing as real butter with that kind of nutritional profile. “We assert that there is no such product as ‘reduced fat butter’ under federal law,” he said.

Bradley was critical of products called “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” and “Move Over Butter.” That second product’s packaging, he said, does not contain the words “plant-based” to distinguish the product as not actual butter.

The packaging of products like “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” does not contain the words “plant-based” to distinguish the product as not actual butter, dairy expert says.

Ingredients include soybean oil, sweet cream buttermilk, palm oil, palm kernel oil, salt, emulsifiers, fractionated palm oil, preservatives, phosphoric acid, several vitamins, beta carotene and natural and artificial flavors.

“This product appears to be both adulterated and misbranded, in light of the widespread use of ingredients not considered legal in butter,” Bradley said.

The product also does not appear to contain at least 40 percent butterfat, to meet Wisconsin statute 100.36. “The sweet cream buttermilk, listed as the third ingredient is in fact the dried, residual product from the butter-making process and has very limited butterfat content,” he added.


Hardin told the board that his previous complaints to the Food Safety Division “have yielded a variety of basic non-actions.” When he alerted them to the lack of a Wisconsin or USDA grading mark on certain butter products, there was no action.

A message from a DATCP spokesperson, said that “we do not view butter grade labeling as a food safety issue and with limited resources available to us will follow up on complaints in an order prioritized by food safety risk. If violations . . . can’t be resolved by manufacturers coming into voluntary compliance, the department may initiate progressive enforcement to gain compliance.”

Hardin said that if there aren’t enough resources for the department to enforce state and federal laws then it needs to get more resources. “Perhaps fines of $1 per pound levied against marketers of products sold in Wisconsin in violation of state and federal laws would provide additional revenue to the Food Safety Division.

“The precedent for a $1 a pound fine was established about 20 years ago when DATCP fined a Wisconsin manufacturer of imitation cheese $1 a pound for using industrial-grade Milk Protein Concentrate (MPC) in imitation cheese products.”

Regarding complaints on clearly misbranded and adulterated products sold in Wisconsin that were marketed by out-of-state firms, Hardin said he was told that those complaints should be filed with those respective state’s agencies.

In all these cases – and others – fraudulent consumer products being sold in Wisconsin continue to be sold, even after his complaints to the Food Safety Division, Hardin said.

“We implore the Bureau of Consumer Protection to investigate these complaints and remove these fraudulent food products from retailers in Wisconsin,” he said.