Last May, Monsanto filed complaints with the Federal Trade Commission asking it to stop "deceptive labeling and advertising" by dairies that produce milk free of synthetic hormones. On August 28, the FTC denied that request, saying that in its review of the ads and packaging, it found no misleading claims.
Monsanto, producer of Posilac, a brand of recombinant bovine somatotropin, says rBST helps cows produce a greater volume of milk without putting bovine or human health at risk. The company said in its complaint that ads and labels including hormone-free production claims mislead consumers into believing that hormone-free dairy products are healthier and safer.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved rBST in 1993, and finds no health risk, other governing agencies and associations disagree.
"Monsanto and the FDA claim that there is no scientific basis for rBST- and rBGH [recombinant bovine growth hormone]-free dairy being safer or healthier," said Charles Margulis, spokesman from the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco. "But the EU, Japan, Canada believe that there are risks and have banned the use of hormones from their dairy supplies for that reason."
In addition to speculation on human health risks from consumption of dairy produced by hormone-supplemented cows, an ongoing animal welfare debate exists. While the hormone stimulates greater production of milk, rBST has been found to increase the risk of mastitis, infertility and lameness in cows, according to a 2003 report by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
Monsanto also claimed that the ads and labels were "artificially increasing demand" for rBST-free dairy products.
"There's nothing artificial about that demand," said Margulis. "That is completely real."
As evidence of increasing consumer demand for hormone-free dairy, last January Starbucks began regionally eliminating rBGH and rBST milk from its stores. Recently, the Michigan Milk Producers Association decided to offer only rBST-free milk and asked its producers to comply with this change.
"Our major customers have indicated that it was their intent to transition to a rBST-free line of dairy products come next year," said Carl Rasch, director of raw milk sales at MMPA. "Kroger initiated the action a month ago by notifying us of their decision to process and label products not containing synthetic growth hormone and their competitors have followed suit."
This ruling by the FTC primarily affects conventional dairies that choose not to supplement their milk herds with hormones. Organic dairy is regulated by the USDA and already prohibited from using any hormones in the cows or feed, as well as pesticides, fungicides or synthetic fertilizers, and therefore any production claims by organic dairy farmers would fall outside the scope of Monsanto's complaint.
But for mainstream producers and packagers who choose to use the hormone-free production claim on their dairy, the FTC ruling can be seen as a small triumph.
"The agency rejected Monsanto's complaint, and that's a victory for consumers who demand to know what is in their milk," said Margulis. "A complete victory would be to require labels on all milk to inform consumers exactly what is in there and what the production standards are, but that probably won't be happening too soon."