They came. They inspected. They left.
Then they sent warning letters.
In September, four dairies received notice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that labels on some of their products were erroneous. The agency said that if the dairies failed to promptly correct the labels, they could face regulatory action, including possible "seizure and/or injunction" of their products.
At issue is the use of the terms no hormones or hormone-free on the packaging of various milk products produced by the four dairies in question. The FDA says the claim is false because all milk products contain naturally occurring hormones and that milk cannot be processed in a way that renders it free of hormones.
"Whether we like [the label change] or not, the organic industry has the responsibility to be accurate in what they say," said Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, based in Greenfield, Mass.
The dairies targeted by the FDA range from Parmalat USA, a division of $6 billion Italian food behemoth Parmalat, to much smaller operations like Florida-based Golden Fleece Products Inc., Minnesota-based Pride of Main Street Dairy LLC, and Ronnybrook Farm Dairy in rural New York.
Two of the dairies acknowledged the inaccuracy of their labels and are complying or planning to comply with the FDA's directive. Rick Osofsky, co-owner of Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, predicts that the cost of changing the wording on his company's ice cream containers could run $20,000 to $25,000.
"It just baffles me that they found Ronnybrook," Osofsky said. "They could spend their energy on something else."
Bafflement may not be an accurate description, however. Almost without exception, the dairies interviewed for this story fingered agricultural giant Monsanto Co. as a primary reason for the FDA action.
As the manufacturer of Posilac bovine somatatrophin, the brand name for recombinant bovine growth hormone, Monsanto has recently taken issue with companies whose labels might lead consumers to believe that milk from rbST-treated cows is unsafe.
"We are witnessing an offensive on the part of Monsanto on this issue," said Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, a large organic yogurt maker. Just this past summer, Monsanto sued a Maine dairy for allegedly implying on its labels that its rbST-free milk is superior (see "Monsanto, FDA Cracking Down On Hormone-Free Milk Claims," NFM, September 2003).
The company points to FDA-approved scientific research that concludes that milk is just as safe and healthy from rbST-treated cows as it is from animals that don't receive the synthetic hormone.
"We support the FDA's position to take action against labels that violate the law," said Monsanto spokeswoman Janice Armstrong. "And it's good for the industry because it ensures that misleading and untruthful milk labels and advertisements will not disparage other products in the dairy case."
Many players in the organic industry are convinced that Monsanto's clout was a primary reason for the warning letters.
"FDA is doing all the work for Monsanto, rather than for the consumer," said George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley Family of Farms.
While the FDA concedes that Monsanto was "one of the complainants" that led the agency to launch its label inspection this summer, the FDA takes seriously all allegations of false labeling, an agency spokesman said.
Even if Monsanto has the law behind it, Stonyfield's Hirshberg doesn't believe the company's litigious approach is a good public relations move.
"It's not very savvy on their part to sue these dairies because they are making them martyrs," he said. "Nothing endears you to the public more than being an enemy of Monsanto."
John Aguilar is a freelance reporter in Boulder, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 11/p. 1