Business

Limits put on milk containers

HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania is stopping dairies from stamping milk containers with hormone-free labels in a precedent-setting decision being closely watched by the industry.

Synthetic hormones have been used to improve milk production in cows for more than a decade. The chemical has not been detected in milk, so there is no way to test for its use, but a growing number of retailers have been selling and promoting hormone-free products in response to consumer demand.

State Agriculture Secretary Dennis C. Wolff said advertising one brand of milk as free from artificial hormones implies that competitors’ milk is not safe, and it often comes with what he said is an unjustified higher price.

“It’s kind of like a nuclear arms race,” Wolff said. “One dairy does it and the next tries to outdo them. It’s absolutely crazy.”

Agricultural regulators in New Jersey and Ohio are considering following suit, the latest battle in a long-standing dispute over whether injecting cows with bovine growth hormone affects milk.

Effective Jan. 1, dairies selling milk in Pennsylvania, the nation’s fifth-largest dairy state, will be banned from advertising that their product comes from cows that have never been treated with rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin.

The product, sold by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. under the brand name Posilac, is the country’s largest-selling dairy pharmaceutical. It is also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH.

It has been approved for use in the U.S. since 1994, although safety concerns have spurred an increase in rBST-free product sales. The hormone is banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia and Japan, largely out of concern that it may be harmful to herd health.

Monsanto spokesman Michael Doane said the hormone-free label “implies to consumers, who may or may not be informed on these issues, that there’s a health-and-safety difference between these two milks, that there’s ‘good’ milk and ‘bad’ milk, and we know that’s not the case.”

Rick North of the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, a leading critic of the artificial growth hormone, said the Pennsylvania rules amounted to censorship.

“This is a clear example of Monsanto’s influence,” he said. “They’re getting clobbered in the marketplace by consumers everywhere wanting rBGH-free products.”

Acting on a recommendation of an advisory panel, the Pennsylvania Agriculture Department has notified 16 dairies in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts that their labels were false or misleading and had to be changed by the end of December.

“There’s absolutely no way to certify whether the milk is from cattle treated or not treated” with rBST, Wolff said. “Some of the dairies that have enforced this, it’s absolutely the honor system.”

Rutter’s Dairy Inc., a central Pennsylvania company that sells about 300,000 gallons a week, began promoting its milk as free of artificial hormones this summer. It has fired back at the state decision with full-page newspaper ads and a lobbying campaign. It is also urging customers to protest.

“We just think the consumers are more keenly aware in today’s world about where their food comes from and how their food is manufactured or handled,” said Rutter’s President Todd Rutter.

Rutter’s sells its milk at the state’s minimum price, but a national spot check of prices by the American Farm Bureau last month found “rBST-free” milk typically costs about 25 percent more.



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