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'Hormone-free' milk spurs labeling debate

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

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Some say Monsanto is behind attempts to remove mentions of hormones. "Clearly what's going on is Monsanto is trying to get states to thwart the market from working," says Michael Hansen, senior scientist for Consumers Union. "If the market wants blue corn and not yellow, and people want blue, that's the way the market works."

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Many consumers appear to favor milk without Posilac – marketed under both organic and artificial hormone-free labels. But Monsanto contends that milk from cows treated with Posilac is safe and no different from milk from cows with naturally occurring hormones. They say labeling claims about hormones mislead consumers into thinking there is a difference in milk quality.

Furthermore, Monsanto spokeswoman Lori Hoag says that farmers decrease their profits by not treating cows with Posilac. "It makes [cows] more efficient and productive," she says. "In general, the producers are not getting compensated for the ability not to use that product."

Maine dairy processor Stanley Bennett, of Oakhurst Dairy, contests that statement. He was the first bottler to tout rBGH-free milk. "In addition to premiums to not use growth hormone," he says, "there are basic incentives for a dairy farmer to 'go off the needle.' They relate to wear and tear on the animal." Poor management can lead to health problems in cows treated with rBGH, he says.

Among dairy farmers, though, there's no consensus about the bottom line. "There's a place for it on some farms, but not my farm. It's because of our values," says Angie Facey, a farmer and co-op manager at Our Family Farms, a small distributor of rBGH-free milk in western Massachusetts. "A high-producing cow has to be a healthy cow. I honestly don't think it hurts the cow."

Monsanto has unsuccessfully petitioned the Federal Trade Commission for a rule change about what it says is deceptive labeling. Other legal action taken by the company and lobbying by farm bureaus to block such labeling has largely failed. Legal precedent appears to uphold the free-speech interest of dairies and the consumer's right to know.

But Monsanto's Ms. Hoag says the company has no plans to pull Posilac. "We continue to hear from producers that this is a profitable product they can use."

As other new agricultural technology reaches the market, labeling debates appear likely to increase, industry analysts say. For example, milk made from cloned animals and their offspring, approved Jan. 15 by the FDA, has already prompted one labeling bill in California.

In addition, cheese and other products made with milk have not faced the same level of labeling scrutiny that milk has. "This issue will not go away," says the Consumer Union's Mr. Hansen.

Organic vs. hormone-free

Consumers strolling by the dairy aisle at their local grocery story may wonder: What's the difference between organic and hormone-free milk?

The US Department of Agriculture has established rules so you can know the answer.

USDA regulations for organic milk prohibit the use of artificial growth hormones and antibiotics while mandating that cows are given access to pasture and fed organic grains.

Dairies that produce and market hormone-free milk have essentially agreed to abide by just one of the principals of organic milk production.

While organic dairy farmers are required to be inspected by independent third parties who verify a farmer's compliance, artificial hormone-free dairy farms are not inspected. In most cases those farmers sign a legally binding affidavit instead.