HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture here has postponed its implementation of rules that would prohibit dairies from labeling milk “free of artificial hormones.”
Also, a coalition of 65 organizations, including numerous dairy operations, consumer advocacy groups and organic industry associations recently sent a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell demanding that the state rescind its ban on milk hormone labeling entirely, charging that it “interferes with consumers' right to know about the foods they eat,” it “represents a serious infringement on the free speech rights of farmers who want to inform the public about their agricultural practices,” and because it “contradicts long established federal policy on the matter.”
Concern about the use of artificial growth hormones is one of the leading reasons that consumers cite for switching to organic dairy products, and several major conventional dairies, including Dean Foods and H.P. Hood, have recently discontinued the use of rBGH and rBST in some or all of their herds to meet rising consumer demand for milk free of these hormones.
“I would think any retailer should be very concerned about what's going on in Pennsylvania, because it's the state trying to interfere with what truthful information businesses can put on labels, particularly when the [federal] government has explicitly said that they consider these labels to be truthful or they consider these labels not misleading,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumers Union, a Yonkers, N.Y.-based consumer advocacy group and publisher of Consumer Reports magazine.
Officials at other consumer groups agreed.
“The Center for Food Safety believes that consumers have a fundamental right to know what's in their food,” Kevin Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety and a signatory to the Nov. 29 letter, explained to SN. “And by preventing dairies … from labeling [milk] rBGH-free, they're basically violating this right to know.”
He continued: “Secondly, processors, farmers and manufacturers have a First Amendment right of commercial speech to say what's in their food — or what's not in their food — and by preventing them from saying this, they're violating that right.”
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, claims such as “no hormones” or “hormone free” are considered false because all milk contains naturally occurring hormones. However, both the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission have agreed that it is acceptable to label a product free of artificial hormones.
A recent release from Consumers Union noted that when the FDA approved the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone, the agency also said that dairies would also be allowed to label their milk “from cows not treated with rBST.”
“PDA's action contradicts long established federal policy on this matter,” the release noted. “In 1994, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use of Monsanto's recombinant bovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST), the FDA also said that the following label statement, in proper context, is acceptable: ‘from cows not treated with rBST.’ Earlier this year, Monsanto asked the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to declare these labels to be misleading. In late August, the FTC wrote to Monsanto, “The FTC staff agrees with FDA that food companies may inform consumers in advertising, as in labeling, that they do not use rBST.'”
Due to those earlier actions by Monsanto, Golden at CFS said he found it hard to believe that the company, which markets the hormones under the brand name Posilac, wasn't somehow involved with pressuring Pennsylvania officials into their decision. However, PDA spokesman Chris Ryder denied those allegations.
“As far as why the department created these standards, we were getting input from consumers, dairy farmers and other individuals that were saying there was some level of confusion over what the labels meant,” said Ryder.
“The secretary convened a food advisory committee, who agreed that there is some confusion created by labels, that some of them are misleading, and they urged the secretary to look into it.”
In late October, PDA informed 16 dairies that they cannot use certain labels on milk, including “Our farmers' pledge: no artificial growth hormones,” “From cows not treated with the growth hormone rBST,” and “free of artificial growth hormones.” The ban on using these labels will go into effect on Feb. 1, 2008, an extension from the original date of Jan. 1, 2008.
The PDA's Standards document, dated Oct. 22, 2007, defines prohibited label representations to include claims that have not been confirmed by lab analysis; are only supported by sworn statements, affidavits or testimonials; where the compound or substance is naturally present in the product and is stated as not present; and where the compound or substance is prohibited from being in the product by statute or regulation and stated as not being present or added.
Hansen, who opposes the standard, argued that the “absence labeling” logic is not consistent, because there are many products in the marketplace that make claims such as “no artificial colors” and “no artificial flavors.”
Hansen said that the PDA's logic doesn't make sense, because products are frequently labeled for qualities that couldn't be tested in a lab.
“Probably the most prominent example is reconstituted orange juice,” he said. “Orange juice that's fresh-squeezed has to be labeled differently than if it's from concentrate. If it's reconstituted, then it has to be labeled. And I don't know of any quick tests to do on orange juice to tell if it's freshly squeezed or made from concentrate.”
Mary Bach, a western Pennsylvania-based independent consumer advocate who attended the food labeling advisory committee meeting here, agrees with the PDA's action to ban milk hormone labeling. She said she believes that there needs to be a standard, since the artificial growth hormones do not show up in lab tests, and said she believes that many small conventional milk producers may feel coerced into signing a “hormone free” pledge by their buyers, even if they continue to use artificial hormones.
“Whose word are we taking?” Bach said. “At the meeting, we actually had farmers in the room that said they were aware of other farmers who were being coerced because of livelihood to sign pledges that they did not use any bovine growth hormone. They were signing a pledge with a basic lack of ethics and integrity because they in fact did use it. But, because the processors were demanding [it], saying ‘if you don't sign that pledge, we're not going to buy your milk.’ … So again, who do you trust?”
Golden told SN that according to a Lake Research Partners national survey, 80% of adults feel that dairy products originating from cows that have not been treated with rBGH should be allowed to be labeled as such, while 15% oppose this labeling.
Chuck Ardo, a spokesman for Gov. Rendell's office, told SN that the office had not yet received the letter, but he was surprised to find that it has received numerous letters on both sides of the issue.
“It came as a surprise that there was so much interest in the issue,” Ardo said.
“The governor's position was simply that the administration wanted to review the issue and consequently delayed its implementation. That review is ongoing, and the very earliest that they could take effect would be sometime in February.”