After an outcry from consumer advocates, the state of Pennsylvania has reversed its ban on milk labels proclaiming that the milk comes from cows that were not injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone.
Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff issued the ban, which would have forbidden any mention of hormones on milk labels, in October 2007. He reasoned that labels stating that milk was produced from rBGH-free cattle would lead consumers to think that milk from hormone-injected cows was inferior. The ban was scheduled to go into effect Feb. 1 and would have affected 16 Pennsylvania dairies that labeled their milk "free of artificial growth hormones."
Although Washington, Missouri, Ohio and New Jersey have considered similar label bans, Pennsylvania was the first state to actually enact one.
As part of its decision to reverse the ban, Pennsylvania will require that dairies verify their production methods and back up their label claims with a paper audit trail. rBGH-free labels will still require a disclaimer that the milk is not safer than milk from synthetic hormone-injected cattle. All milk labeled "organic" will continue to be rBGH-free, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture organic regulations.
Consumers Union, a nonprofit based in Yonkers, N.Y., gathered a coalition of 65 consumers, farmers, agricultural and environmental groups, public health organizations, food processors and retailers to lobby Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell to reverse the ban, calling it a "serious infringement on the free speech rights of farmers who want to inform the public about their agricultural practices."
"Consumers increasingly want to know more about how their food is produced, and particularly whether it is produced in a natural and sustainable manner. There is no justification for prohibiting information about rBGH use on a milk label," said Michael Hansen, Ph.D., a senior scientist with Consumers Union, in a statement.
rBGH is a synthetic hormone produced by Monsanto that mimics a natural hormone found in cows. It is designed to boost milk output by a gallon or more daily. rBGH was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1994, but is banned in Canada, Japan and the European Union. According to Consumers Union, the number of cows treated with rBGH dropped from 22.3 percent in 2002 to 17.2 percent in 2007.
In a November letter to Rendell, Consumers Union stated that in 2007, Monsanto asked the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission to declare labels with statements such as "from cows not treated with [rBGH]" to be misleading. The FTC denied the request.
In other rBGH news, Starbucks announced Jan. 16 that it will begin converting all its dairy products in its 5,500 U.S. stores to rBGH-free. According to a Reuters report, 37 percent of the milk the Seattle-based coffee chain currently uses is free of synthetic hormones. The company didn't set a date for total conversion.