Organic and natural milk producers may be under investigation soon if Monsanto Corp. gets its wish. The St. Louis-based company filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration, asking them to "stop deceptive milk labeling and advertising" by dairies that claim their products are free of added growth hormones.
Monsanto produces Posilac, the only major brand of recombinant bovine somatotropin. The company says rBST is a natural protein, and cows supplemented with it produce a greater volume of milk, making farms more efficient, and without putting bovine or human health at risk or altering the amount of hormone in the milk. The FDA approved the use of Posilac in 1993, and it has been commercially available since 1994.
Monsanto says dairies such as Alta Dena, Borden and H.P. Hood "disparage milk and deny farmers a choice in using approved technologies" with claims on their Web sites and packaging that state that rBST-free milk is safer for cows and customers. Borden's carton declares the milk is "naturally produced without artificial hormones," a claim Monsanto says is misleading because rBST is neither artificial nor added directly to the milk.
Still, unease about the additive's safety persists. A 2003 report by the Cana?dian Veterinary Medical Association con?cluded that rBST increased the risk of mastitis in cows by about 25 percent, increased the risk of cows failing to conceive by 40 percent and increased the risk of lameness by 55 percent. While consumers regularly express concern about risks to human health, including premature sexual development, no studies have confirmed these suspicions.
Nonetheless, many companies are responding to consumers. In January, Seattle-based Starbucks Coffee Co. announced it would no longer purchase dairy products from cows treated with growth hormone. That same month, California Dairies Inc., a distribution co-op of 650 dairies, told its members it would stop accepting milk from herds treated with rBST. Safeway has banned milk produced by injected cows, and Hood and Dean Foods have converted their New England dairies to rBST-free production. That sort of market pressure may have spurred Monsanto's February letters to the government agencies.
This is not the first time, however, that Monsanto has tried to squelch the use of anti-rBST messaging. In July 2003, it sued Portland, Maine-based Oakhurst Dairy for claiming its milk contained "no artificial hormones." Cit?ing the FDA's own pre-approval research of Posilac in 1993, Monsanto said in its suit that there is no nutritional difference between the milk of treated and untreated cows, and Oakhurst's claims disparaged Monsanto's product. The companies settled the case when Oakhurst said it would continue to label its milk as free from added hormones, but would also state: "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows." As a result of that suit, most producers to?day who label their milk rBST-free also include that FDA-approved statement.
In its recent letter to the FDA, Monsanto wrote: "Frequently, however, the quote is not juxtaposed with the deceptive representation and is reproduced in decidedly smaller print with little or no prominence provided. As a result, consumers are not likely to read and appreciate the message FDA considers essential to convey." The letter called the statement "shopworn" and "boilerplate application of phraseology."
Now, Monsanto has asked the FDA to issue warning letters, similar to those it issued in September 2003 to Parmalat USA, Main Street Dairy, Golden Fleece Products and Ronnybrook Farm, stating that labels on their products were erroneous.
In addition, Monsanto asked the FDA to revisit its "dated" 1994 guidance, which outlines its strategies for achieving "fair balance" and "consumer understanding."
Horizon Organic spokeswoman Sara Unrue said the dispute is "really a non-issue" for the Boulder, Colo.-based company. "The [U.S. Department of Agriculture] organic regulations govern our production practices, so per that we cannot use [rBST], and our label reflects that." While acknowledging that milk cartons could simply display the USDA organic seal, Unrue said that for Horizon, "It's really about educating consumers about what is organic—that it's produced without the use of antibiotics, added growth hormones or harmful pesticides."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.1,14