BOSTON -- Retailers in Vermont, the only state that requires special labeling for dairy products that contain milk stimulating hormones, are a little disgruntled.
"[They] don't like the law and wish it would go away," said Jim Harrison, president of the Vermont Grocers Association, at the New England Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association conference here.
"They really resent that the burden of labeling falls on them, not the manufacturer," said Harrison. "Some would probably not dislike it so much if the labeling was done by someone else."
The labeling law took effect last September, requiring all retail stores to label dairy products that contain Bovine Somatotropin, known as rBST, in spite of the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has approved it as being safe for human consumption (SN, Sept. 25, 1995, Page 25).
A survey of more than 100 Vermont retailers taken two months after the law took effect showed them overwhelmingly in favor of repealing the law. Eight other states and Puerto Rico currently have a variety of bills pending to ban rBST, provide for voluntary labeling or require mandatory labeling.
Vermont also has a bill pending that would extend the rBST labeling law to infant formula and delete the provision that will "sunset" the existing law June 30, 1997.
Vermont's labeling law has several exemptions, including shelf-stable cheese products, buttermilk, egg nog and frozen desserts, explained Byron Moyer, dairy inspection supervisor of the Vermont Department of Agriculture.
"We worked with 1,100 retail outlets to determine the list of exemptions," said Moyer. "We made a command decision to focus on mainstream dairy products that 90% of consumers buy so we could enforce it. No extra money was passed to implement or enforce the law.
"We left out the shelf-stable products because every convenience store and gas station in Vermont sells them," Moyer explained. "There was no way to enforce that."
Manufacturers have the option to print the information directly on the retail container, but not one has taken that option, explained Moyer. "The retailer is required to post signs."
The Department of Agriculture prepared five signs for retail use, including "Blue Dot" signs for stores larger than 7,000 square feet. The large stores may mark individual products in dairy and deli cases with a blue dot, then hang signs explaining what the dot means.
If all products in the case contain rBST, one large sign may be used to inform customers of the fact. The FDA disclaimer that rBST is not harmful to humans may also be included.
Harrison displayed several headlines that ran when the law was implemented. Two competing newspapers ran editorials on the same day: one was headlined "An Effective Law" while the other was titled "The Law Is a Lie."
It may be too early to say what effect the law may be having on sales, said Harrison. VGA's surveys showed such tiny differences in sales that "they are statistically insignificant," said Harrison.
Costs to retailers throughout Vermont to implement the law were estimated at a total of $50,625, based on an average of five hours at $10.125 an hour over 1,000 stores. The group estimates annual costs to maintain the program at a grand total of $121,500, or one hour per month at $10,125 over 1,000 stores.
Costs to manufacturers are estimated at $2.5 million for legal fees, research, planning and inspections. Costs to the state totalled about $302,255 for the Department of Agriculture and the Attorney General's office for staff time, materials and expert witnesses.
As SN reported, three groups filed suit to block the law in April 1994, before it went into effect, and a federal judge denied a motion for injunctive relief in August 1995. Then the three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals heard the manufacturers' appeal in November last year and the state of New York joined the suit.
"We thought we'd have a ruling in January," said Harrison. "We don't know why it's taking so long, if we're looking at a split decision, or what."
Despite the law's unpopularity with most retailers, some small Vermont dairy farmers have asked they be allowed to use special signs indicating their products don't contain rBST.
Meanwhile, there also appears to be some dispute as to how effective the hormone is in its intended use. Most farmers are happy with the hormone, but while some chose not to use it for philosophical reasons, others have tried it and were disappointed when they did not see an immediate 20% increase in milk production, said Moyer.
"Unless you have the management expertise to use the product correctly, to feed and manage the animals, you may end up further behind than where you were because you are going to crank up their RPMs a little bit," Moyer said. "Not everyone can drive an Indy 500 car."
The law's sunset date was a political compromise, said Moyer, because the bill passed by a slim margin.
"If everyone ends up being happy with the law," said Moyer, "there will be political pressure to extend it."