In late October, the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Dennis Wolff, announced that 16 dairies that sell milk in Pennsylvania must change their products' labels because they were "false or misleading." The alleged labeling infractions were the use of terms such as "hormone-free" or "antibiotic-free." In other words, claims that the milk came from cows that have not been injected with synthetic growth hormones or antibiotics, the latter of which are often needed because of the former's use.
The dairies, Secretary Wolff decreed, had until Jan. 1, 2008, to change their labels. Failure to do so would mean they would be barred from selling their products in Pennsylvania.
Just this past week, however, Gov. Ed Rendell announced that the ruling's implementation would be delayed, probably for several months, while his office reviews "the way [the rules] were promulgated and their effect." By any measure, this was the appropriate action.
The trend these days is to provide more information on food labels: "no trans fat" "free-range" "no preservatives." Mr. Wolff concluded in this case, however, that by stating what was not in the milk, these dairies were misleading consumers into believing their products were safer or healthier, something he dubbed "absence labeling."
But Mr. Wolff provided no evidence to support these claims. No public hearings were held or scientifically valid surveys conducted to assess consumers' feelings about the labels. A Food Labeling Advisory Committee reportedly held a single meeting to discuss the matter, but who was on that committee, or what they discussed, has not been revealed.
Strangely, the department issued a press release on Oct. 12 to announce that it was "investigating food labeling practices to better help consumers make informed purchasing and eating decisions." Less than two weeks later, it concluded that these allegedly misleading milk labels had to go.
Anybody familiar with the workings of any large organization, let alone a department of a state government, might suspect that the only way such a significant decision could be reached so quickly is if it were a foregone conclusion. They might also conclude that the "investigation" and formation of an advisory committee were mere window dressing intended to provide a glossy sheen of credibility and due diligence.
In news reports, Mr. Wolff argued there is no difference between milk from cows given synthetic growth hormone -- the hormone, rbGH, manufactured by the agribusiness giant Monsanto, helps boost cows' milk production by as much as 25 percent -- and milk from cows that do it the old-fashioned way. Besides, he argued, the Food and Drug Administration approved rbGH in 1993 and agrees that the products are identical.
Never mind that serious criticism from respected scientists has been raised about the rat studies -- yes, rat studies, and little more -- on which the FDA based its approval. Never mind that Canadian and European regulators, after reviewing more recent evidence from more rigorously designed studies have banned rbGH from being used on dairy cows in their countries.
Never mind that Monsanto's own studies have shown increased levels in treated cows' milk of a protein that numerous studies have linked to some of the most common cancers, including breast and prostate cancer. This protein, IGF-1, by the way, is molecularly identical in cows and humans.
Never mind that there isn't even a test to detect rbGH in cows' milk -- a point Mr. Wolff tries to use in his favor, even though the lack of such a "residue assay" violates FDA regulations, but has somehow been allowed to slide by the agency for the last 14 years.
And, finally, never mind the disturbing similarity between some of the arguments made by Mr. Wolff and those made by Monsanto to the Federal Trade Commission and FDA earlier this year, when the company tried, apparently in vain, to have this type of labeling banned because it is, you guessed it, "false or misleading."
None of this is to say that milk from rbGH-treated cows is dangerous. More research is desperately needed to make a definitive statement one way or the other. And none of this is to say that people shouldn't buy milk from cows treated with rbGH, if they so choose.
Admittedly, milk labeled as hormone- or antibiotic-free often is more expensive (yet another point Mr. Wolff tries to use in his favor, as if peoples' willingness to pay more for something is evidence of a mystified mind!) and not within every family's budget.
What it does scream, however, is that consumers have a right to know where the food they eat and milk they drink comes from. They have a right to know how the source animals of their pork or chicken or milk have been treated. In fact, they are demanding it. In many grocery stores, the biggest increases in demand are for organic or more sustainably raised products.
If there are concerns about consumers being misled, the answer is not to give them less information. Rather, it is to establish ways to ensure that what is being claimed on food labels is true: through inspections, minimally disruptive regulations or other means.
Mr. Wolff's decision in this instance was, at the very least, irresponsible. Consumers should hope that, after his review, Gov. Rendell does the right thing and reverses it.