Monsanto Co.'s lawsuit against a Maine dairy, and recent statements by U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials about "misleading" hormone-free labels on dairy products, indicate an effort to further restrict organic dairy companies' ability to label their products as being free of a genetically engineered bovine growth hormone.
In its lawsuit against Oakhurst Dairy, a small, family-owned dairy in Portland, Maine, Monsanto objected to a label on Oakhurst's milk products that says, "Our Farmers' Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones." Monsanto says the label misleads consumers into thinking that milk produced from cows treated with Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST) is inferior to milk from cows not treated with the hormone.
In a company statement, Monsanto says the label fails to "fully disclose years of scientific evidence that milk from cows supplemented with rBST is the same as other milk" and runs counter to the FDA's labeling guidelines for rBGH-free dairy products. Monsanto wants Oakhurst to add the safety claims about rBGH to its label "so that consumers can make an informed choice."
Consumers Want To Know
Oakhurst President Stanley Bennett said his company will fight the lawsuit. "We make no claims about whether there are any health issues involved with growth hormones," said Bennett. "We are merely responding to consumers' requests."
Bennett said many consumers have told him they don't want milk coming from farms that use artificial hormones. "We have a right to let consumers know that," he said.
A recent poll by the Portland Press Herald backs Bennett's assertion. When asked, "Do you prefer hormone-free milk?" 91 percent of respondents to the unscientific survey said yes.
Joseph Mendelson, legal director at the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., said the lawsuit infringes on free speech. "Companies have been granted a right to free speech," he said. "As long as what they say is truthful on a label, they can say it."
Monsanto's claim that milk derived from rBGH-treated cows is not any different or less safe than conventional milk is not internationally recognized, Mendelson said. The hormone has not been approved in Canada or the European Union because of health and safety concerns.
Earlier this year, Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe turned down Monsanto's request to ban the use of the state's Quality Trademark Seal, a label that indicates a dairy product is rBGH-free. Oakhurst and H.P. Hood, another New England dairy, both use the seal.
Disclaimers Could Be Next
Federal regulators have signaled that they may seek to tighten guidelines for labeling rBGH-free dairy products. In a recent letter to St. Louis-based Monsanto, FDA Deputy Commissioner Lester Crawford wrote, "We share your concerns" about "deceptive practices" that mislead consumers about the quality, safety or value of milk products from rBGH-treated cows. Crawford stated that the agency was exploring labeling practices for milk products to determine if they are misleading, and may issue warning letters to companies that are "falsely" marketing milk and dairy products as "being free of hormones."
The agency has recommended that companies use a statement such as "from cows not treated with rBST" along with a disclaimer, "no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows."
The labeling restriction could affect Organic Valley and Horizon Organic Dairy, the nation's two largest organic dairy producers. Organic Valley's milk products feature a label that says, "Produced without hormones, antibiotics or pesticides." The label on Horizon Organic Dairy's products is virtually the same: "This milk was produced without the use of hormones, antibiotics or pesticides."
Horizon Organic Dairy of Longmont, Colo., released a statement saying, "Horizon Organic believes it is important for consumers to have the choice of milk and dairy products produced without the use of growth hormones."
"The labeling burden should be on Monsanto, not us," Siemon said.
Ken Roseboro is the editor of The Non-GMO Source newsletter. He can be reached at [email protected].
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 9/p. 20