State clamps down on dairy labeling
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By Daniel Malloy
Health claims gleam from every aisle of the grocery store, but Pennsylvania has become the first state to crack down on labels in the dairy section in a precedent-setting ruling that opponents say restricts consumer choice.
As of Jan. 1, dairy product labels such as "growth-hormone free" will be illegal in the state.
Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff announced the decision last month after convening a 22-member Food Labeling Advisory Committee to look into false or misleading claims in "absence labeling."
The ruling covers all dairy products sold in the state, forcing some out-of-state manufacturers, in effect, to make Pennsylvania-only packaging. So far, the state Department of Agriculture has notified 19 companies that their labels must change.
Of the three principal types of labeling affected by the ruling, getting rid of "growth-hormone free" milk labels has proven most controversial.
The labeling refers to recombinant bovine growth hormone -- rBGH or rBST -- produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. under the drug name Posilac that is injected into cows, increasing their milk production by 15 percent. Its use was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1994, after tests showed that rBST does not appear in milk and does not pose a health risk to people.
"This is a product that has been safety tested and approved by the FDA," said Monsanto spokesman Michael Doane, who said the company did not lobby for the labeling law in Pennsylvania. "It has a very long history of safe use. There have been no documented health claims against the product ever in its existence."
But rBST has been attacked by several dairy groups -- including ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's -- since its introduction because it causes an increase in udder infections in cows, and some studies have shown a correlation between certain types of cancer in humans and elevated levels of insulin growth factor, which is present in rBST-fueled milk.
Monsanto opponents point out that many countries, including Canada, Japan, Australia and the European Union, have not approved the use of rBST because of health concerns.
Pennsylvania's order also bars other kinds of "absence labeling," including claims that milk is free of pesticides or antibiotics, which all milk normally is.
Agricultural regulators in at least two other states, New Jersey and Ohio, are considering following Pennsylvania's lead.
Although synthetic hormones have been used in cows for more than a decade, the growth hormone issue has been pressed to the forefront recently by economics. Consumers now are more concerned about where their food comes from and how it's manufactured -- whether that means locally made, certified organic or growth-hormone free.
For Chuck Turner Jr., of Turner Dairy Farms Inc. in Penn Hills, making sure the milk his company sells is rBST-free makes good business sense.
"There's a certain customer segment out there that is interested in cows not being injected with this Monsanto stuff," Mr. Turner said. "There's nobody saying, 'Give me milk with growth hormones.' That's the way we saw it."
But Monsanto and the Department of Agriculture warn that it's good business for another reason -- higher prices. According to a report last month by the American Farm Bureau, consumers pay an average of 25 percent more for milk labeled rBST-free.
So what are they paying for?
Turner Dairy's suppliers all sign pledges that they will not use rBST on their cows because there is no way to test for it in the milk. The Department of Agriculture argues that pledges aren't good enough.
"There's absolutely no way to certify whether the milk is from cattle treated or not treated [with rBST]," Mr. Wolff, a former dairy farmer who still owns a farm in Columbia County, said. "Some of the dairies that have enforced this, it's absolutely the honor system."
Organic labeling, Mr. Wolff said, involves a certification process that includes surprise audits, so the department does not currently intend to interfere with it.
Mr. Turner still plans to make sure customers know Turner Dairy's milk is produced without rBST. The company's Web site prominently proclaims: "No added growth hormones," and Mr. Turner said the motto will be reinforced with point-of-purchase advertising.
The Department of Agriculture has no jurisdiction over these tactics, only labels.
And the labels will have to change.
But Mr. Turner, who has fielded several curious phone calls and e-mails since last month's announcement, noted that the new restrictions could have the opposite effect on rBST-free sales.
"Actually, what they're doing is bringing it to everybody's attention," Mr. Turner said.
"If anything, this whole thing is good public relations for us."
The Associated Press contributed. Daniel Malloy can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1731.
First Published November 14, 2007 12:00 am