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Cherry-vanilla water buffalo ice cream

A push to revise rules for ice cream may lead to some interesting ingredients, say critics.

December 7, 2005: 3:13 PM EST

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - How about a nice scoop of cherry-vanilla water buffalo ice cream? No? Perhaps a hot fudge sundae instead, with mint chocolate chip yak ice cream? C'mon ya wimp ...

Thankfully for you, perhaps, there isn't a whole lot of cherry-vanilla water buffalo ice cream around. But there could be. Someday. It'd probably be cheaper to make than the regular cow stuff. The trick is whether or not you can tell the difference as you are gobbling down the old Rocky Road ... and whether or not the ice cream maker told you.

Relax. The government is currently thinking about what the disclosure should be. Feel better now?

Yes, the Food and Drug Administration is pondering new ice cream rules covering everything from pasteurization temperatures to artificial flavor levels to the amount of berry juice in sherbets.

Amid the eye-crossing proposals are new rules for using milk from animals other than cows in ice cream. This includes sheep and goats, much to the delight of health food store types. But it also includes yaks, water buffalo, reindeer and other exotic beasts the typical American consumer rarely associates with the white stuff in the plastic jug in the back of the grocery store.

Now these rules have been proposed by the International Ice Cream Association. If you look at their membership, you'll it is populated by Big Honkin' Corporations (Kroger, Dean Foods, Dreyers, etc.). And whenever Big Honkin' Corporations propose "new" rules ... well, some folks get suspicious, rightly or wrongly.

"This is about making the process a lot more streamlined and efficient," said Marci Cleary, a spokeswoman for the ice cream group.

She has a point. The way things are now, you need a set of rules for goat ice cream, a separate set for yaks, a separate set for sheep, and so on. These rules set up a pretty standard practice ... you got to call it "(exotic animal) ice cream."

But critics say the new rules open the door for ice cream makers to start using milk other than cows in ice cream ... and burying the fact in the fine print on the package or simply not telling the consumer at all.

"This ice cream situation is one of the stupidest things I've ever seen," said Pete Hardin, editor of The Milkweed, a trade publication for dairy farmers.

His contention is that the proposed rules give ice cream manufacturers more latitude in using cheap milk from abroad ... like India. India's dairy industry, by the way, is over 90 percent water buffalo, in case you were wondering.

"Imports from things like water buffalo in India raises sanitation issues and moral issues, like should we be taking food away from impoverished areas," Hardin pointed out.

The ice cream group contends that such worries are out of line. Any such use of exotic animal milk would have to be clearly labeled under the new regulations. And using such ingredients could repulse consumers and kill their business.

"We are not trying to do anything to change the quality of ice cream," said Cleary.

"It's powder you have to worry about," counters John Bunting, a dairy farmer and an analyst for The Milkweed. Sure, you may have to say "water buffalo milk" if you are using it, but if it comes in a powdered form mixed in with other powdered milks, the rules are a little less clear.

Anyway, water buffalo milk is going for about 12 cents a liter (45 cents a gallon) now, said Bunting, versus about 2 to 3 bucks for cow's milk (at retail), so you see the economic advantage in using water buffalo milk. That is, use it without alienating customers.

Well, the feds have been toying with the proposed rules for about two years now. I'm guessing it will take a while longer until they make up their mind. In the meantime, you have until Dec. 27 to weigh in with the FDA, if you are so inclined.

In the meantime, I'll keep hoping my ice cream is coming from an old-fashioned cow named Clara or Flower or something, complete with cow bell.