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'Hormone-free' milk spurs labeling debate

Some say chemical company is behind efforts to sink 'rBGH-free' milk choice.

By Peter SmithCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 21, 2008

Labels: Garelick Farms, a New England dairy, no longer uses artificial growth hormones in its milk-production process, despite the fact that it could increase yields from its cows.

Joanne Ciccarello – staff

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What used to be a decision between whole, low fat, and skim is now a choice between whole, low fat, skim, lactose-free, flavored, organic, conventional, soy, and milk made without artificial hormones.

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The dairy aisle has grown increasingly cluttered with options – and state lawmakers are now wrestling over labeling one of those options: Milk made without recombinant bovine growth hormones (rBGH).

The synthetic hormone – linked by some to health problems in humans when ingested – artificially reproduces a naturally occurring hormone found in dairy cows. It's produced by Monsanto Corp. and sold under the name Posilac. Dairy farmers administer Posilac to lactating cows to increase yields. Its use is banned in Europe and Canada, but the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the artificial hormone in 1993.

In tandem with the rise in organic milk sales, more dairies, supermarket chains, and retailers are offering milk from untreated cows. Because there are no commercially available tests for the artificial hormone, dairy farmers sign affidavits stating they do not use Posilac. Along with dairy processors, this year Starbucks, Kraft, and Wal-Mart rolled out rBGH-free milk products.

"For marketers and processors this is a way to present 'quasi-organic' or 'organic lite' products and extract a premium from consumers," says Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Washington, which represents conventional dairy marketing cooperatives. The rBGH-free label used to offer a competitive edge; now it merely serves to keep marketers up with the times. "It's the old joke about why did the chicken cross the road? Because it can," Mr. Galen says.

Sales of milk labeled "artificial hormone-free" do not appear to be affecting the organic market, says Eric Newman, a representative at Organic Valley, a cooperative that sells milk under the Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm labels. But many in the dairy industry see Wal-Mart's recent decision to sell rBGH-free milk as a bellwether. "It'll probably put the death knell to synthetic growth hormone," Mr. Newman says.

Despite Wal-Mart's an­nouncement, sales of Pos­ilac remain strong, says a spokeswoman for Monsanto.

What also remains strong is state-level debate over labeling, which ap­­pears to be reaching a peak. Pennsylvania, the fifth-largest dairy state, essentially banned labeling claims in October 2007, but rescinded the ban after considerable consumer backlash. Ohio, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, and Michigan all have pending legislation or rule changes that would limit labeling claims about hormones.