It emerged this week that the EU is considering plans to stop producers using the word "fresh" on milk with a use-by date of more than seven days - which would have serious ramifications for the UK where about half of all pasteurised milk has a longer date line.
The rule, proposed by the Greens-European Free Alliance bloc in the European Parliament, cleared the first hurdle to becoming law in June, when MEPs narrowly voted in its favour as part of a wider set of regulations that also includes country-of-origin labelling and Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) on food packaging.
Industry body Dairy UK is now leading efforts to lobby European ministers and MEPs to make sure the proposal is not given any further endorsement when it is discussed by the Council of Ministers this autumn and comes back to MEPs for a Second Reading.
It was possible MEPs from member states more used to UHT had failed to realise what consequences the rule would have for a country like the UK, where the vast majority of all liquid milk sold is pasteurised milk, said Dairy UK technical director Ed Komorowski.
The new rule, he added, would confuse consumers used to looking out for the word "fresh" to distinguish it from UHT milk. About half of all pasteurised milk sold in the UK currently carried a use-by date exceeding seven days, Komorowski estimated, following improvements in the quality of raw milk as well as better cooling and hygiene after pasteurisation.
It was important for politicians and regulators to acknowledge advances made within the supply chain, said a spokesman for processor Robert Wiseman.
"The milk we buy from farmers is very often on the shelves within 24 to 48 hours of it being produced," he said.
UK Green MEP Jean Lambert said her party had put forward the new rule to protect consumers from what she claimed was "misleading" milk labelling. "It would not be acceptable to coat processed fish in breadcrumbs, freeze them, and then label them 'fresh fish'," she said.
The BRC said it did not believe the term "fresh milk" was used misleadingly at the moment and said it did not understand why the amendment had been proposed in the first place.
There is already broad guidance from the FSA on the use of "fresh" that says it is appropriate to describe dairy products "held under chilled conditions at point of sale, with limited shelf life, even where these have been subjected to minimal, mild heat treatment such as conventional pasteurisation".
Dairy Crest stressed the UK milk market was a very different beast to the UHT-dominated markets of the Continent but added it was confident the UK would lobby successfully for the use-by window suggested in the rule to be extended. There have also been suggestions the European Commission itself has taken a dim view of the Greens' proposals.
How milk got its ‘go faster’ stripes
Much progress has been made over the past two decades in extending the shelf life of fresh pasteurised milk, from five to six days in the late 80s/early 90s to eight to 10 days now.
The Greens argue there is now a lack of clarity in consumers' minds as to what 'fresh' means when applied to milk. They say 'fresh' suggests a journey from 'field to fork', not one that goes via a processing centre 'where the nature of the product is changed'.
While the pasteurisation process has changed very little over the past 20 years, shelf life has increased as milk is moving faster from cow to supermarket thanks to a higher degree of automation in plants, improved logistics and, in some cases, dairies being built closer to milk fields.