If one trend has been clear in recent years it's the desire by consumers to know where their food comes from and how it's produced.
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? Late last month, the state 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 January 1, 2008.
Ohio, New Jersey and Indiana are reportedly mulling similar restrictions. If this occurs, consumers will be denied the right to choose the milk they want and farmers banned from describing their practices.
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 (rBGH or rBST).
Surveys clearly show consumers desire more transparency — not less — on milk labels. 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. And Opinion Research found 81 percent of respondents would prefer to buy dairy products derived from cows that do not receive synthetic hormones, assuming little or no pricing difference.
Critics and scientists have raised questions about a possible link between rBGH and a cancer-promoting hormone in humans -- a link denied by Monsanto and other scientists. What is known is that the drug does increase the risk of animal illness, though it also boosts milk production by about 10 percent, which is the reason it is used. Although the Food and Drug Administration approved rBGH in 1993, it has been banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Wolff argues that since the synthetic bovine growth hormones are indistinguishable from naturally occurring hormones and cannot be detected in milk a label that indicates their absence would be impossible to verify. All milk is also tested to be free of antibiotics, so there's no reason to label their absence either.
But Pennsylvania's action also limits statements about production practices, making it impossible for consumers to identify producers who follow a regime they agree with. Starting in January, a farmer cannot say on a milk label, "I don't use rBGH or antibiotics on my farm" – even though this statement may be factually correct.
Such production claims can be verified. Inspections are required by law for organic farms, for example. Conventional milk producers can issue legal affidavits about their practices 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 and Horizon Organic have gotten letters from the state.
This whole debate isn't new, but it has gained steam as national companies sought out milk produced without rBGH and crimped Monsanto's market for the drug. Dean Foods, the largest milk processor in the nation, has switched some plants to rBGH free milk production. Starbucks, Safeway, and Kroger are going that way too; Chipotle Mexican Grill also plans to convert its entire cheese supply by the end of the year. Many natural food stores have long sold milk produced without synthetic hormones.
By stating they avoid milk produced with rBGH, these companies are following federal directives on the matter. As early as 1994, when the Food and Drug Administration approved Monsanto’s synthetic growth hormone, the FDA 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 they believe they disparage competing milk. 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, when Oakhurst added the qualifying language: "FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormone."
Last year, Monsanto appealed to the FDA to review the approved label wording for rBGH and also sought action from the Federal Trade Commission regarding advertising of rBGH free milk.
The FDA declined to act, noting that it would only intervene in cases where fraudulent claims – as opposed to product descriptions – were made on the milk label. In dismissing Monsanto's complaint, the FTC also found no instance where a national company made false claims about rBST.
Having failed to limit the label in the federal arena, it now appears Monsanto is lobbying state governments to cover up the labels and reduce consumer choice.
Pennsylvania was the first to fall. If other states follow, consumer choice and a farmer's right to free speech will be dealt a blow.
But consumer groups, farmer organizations and milk processors are fighting back, first off with a letter writing campaign to the governor. Expect more action ahead.