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Pennsylvania's milk cover-up

If one trend has been clear in recent years, it's the desire by consumers to know more about where their food comes from and the way it's produced.

Consumer surveys clearly show a desire for more transparency — not less — on milk labels and the right to choose. Lake Research Partners found 80 percent of consumers supported the labeling of rBGH-free milk products. The Natural Marketing Institute found that 53 percent of shoppers look for dairy products free of artificial hormones.

But late last month, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture told 19 dairies that they cannot use language such as "Our farmers? pledge: no artificial growth hormones," or "From cows not treated with the growth hormone rBST," starting Jan. 1, 2008.

Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff said the action was promoted by concerns among "consumer groups," farmers and processors, though the action was entirely in line with the policy position of Monsanto, which makes synthetic bovine growth hormone and has seen its use decline.

Why stop there? Why not ban farmer claims such as "grown without pesticides," "locally grown" or "no artificial preservatives or colors" that create an alternative to conventional products? The same logic used by the state for milk can be applied to these other labels that consumers seek out.

Product labels — whether organic, local, or produced without antibiotics and hormones — provide a way for consumers to get that information and make a choice. So why is Pennsylvania swimming against the tide and severely limiting what farmers and processors can say on their milk labels? And why should the rest of the nation care about what happens in Pennsylvania?

If every state followed Pennsylvania, consumers would be denied the right to choose the products they want and farmers would be banned from describing their production practices. Already, Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana are reportedly mulling similar restrictions.

Critics and scientists have raised questions about the synthetic growth hormone because of poor animal health and concerns about possible links to a cancer-promoting hormone in humans. Monsanto and others argue those concerns are baseless. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved rBGH in 1994, but the drug has been banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Wolff said that since the synthetic hormones cannot be detected in milk, a label that indicates their absence would be impossible to verify. As for antibiotics, all milk is tested to be free of antibiotics so there's no reason to label their absence either. But Pennsylvania's action goes beyond limiting statements about the milk and bans factual statements about production practices as well.

Starting in January, for example, a farmer cannot say on a milk label, "I don't use rBGH on my farm" — even though this statement says nothing about the milk and may be factually correct. Such production claims can be verified. Inspections are required by law for organic farms, for example. Conventional milk producers who also avoid synthetic hormones can issue a legal affidavit to that effect, under penalty of fraud. But Pennsylvania closed off this avenue by saying that such affidavits were now unacceptable as a basis for label claims.

Organic milk companies have not been exempt from the action. Aurora Organic Dairy has gotten a warning letter from the state, and other organic milk companies expect to get cited as well.

This debate isn't particularly new, but it has gained steam, as national companies and retailers seek milk produced without rBGH. Starbucks — which sells more milk than coffee — announced its intention to do so earlier this year and supermarket giant Kroger is too. Many natural food stores have long sold milk produced without synthetic hormones.

By stating their chosen avoidance of rBGH, these companies are following federal directives that have been in place for 17 years. In 1994, when the FDA approved Monsanto?s synthetic growth hormone, it allowed production claims such as "from cows not treated with rBST."

For the past several years, Monsanto has sought to limit these absence claims because it believes they disparage producers who chose to use the substance. Monsanto has also been taking legal action to stamp out labels. In 2003, it sued Oakhurst Dairy in Maine over a label statement that read, "Our farmers' pledge: no artificial growth hormones." The suit was settled out of court. Last year, Monsanto appealed to the FDA to review the wording for rBGH label claims and also sought action from the Federal Trade Commission on advertising.

The FDA declined to act, noting that it would only intervene in cases where fraudulent claims were made on the milk label. The FTC also found no instance where a national company made claims about the absence of rBST and dismissed Monsanto's claim. Having struck out with federal regulators, it now appears that Monsanto is lobbying state governments to limit these labels.

Pennsylvania was the first to fall in line. If other states follow, consumer choice and a producer's right to free speech would be dealt a severe blow.

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