Milk from cows that are free of a synthetic growth hormone could carry labels advertising that fact under a bill that has won approval in a Michigan House of Representatives committee.
The Committee on Consumers approved five bills last week that allow dairy processors to label milk, ice cream, and cheese from cows not treated with BST, a hormone that increases milk production.
The measures, which are similar to laws in three other states, are considered unlikely to pass before this year's legislative session ends and would have to be reintroduced next year.
Rep. Ilona Varga (D), from Detroit, says her bills' success in committee paves the way for similar measures she will introduce next session.
''This is an important issue, and the public has a right to know,'' Ms. Varga says. ''I'm not saying there is anything wrong with BST. Just because we label anything doesn't mean that it's bad. But the consumer should know.''
Those opposed to the bills include the dairy industry, some researchers and farmers who helped develop BST, and its producer, Monsanto. They say the United States Food and Drug Administration has found no difference in the milk from treated and untreated cows.
"What are you going to label? The milk is absolutely the same," says Bill Thomas, a retired Michigan State University professor who helped Monsanto test its BST on three Michigan dairy farms. ''These bills would complicate our whole milk-distribution system.''
Three small Michigan dairy processors now label their milk as coming from BST-free cows. Currently, Vermont mandates all milk from BST-treated cows be identified. Maine, Wisconsin, and Minnesota have laws similar to the proposed Michigan measures that allow nonusers of BST to voluntarily label their milk.
Michigan Environmental Defense presented the committee last week with about 26,000 signatures from state residents supporting a mandatory labeling law. The group says the FDA has overlooked important safety questions concerning BST.
Michigan farmers have used BST since 1987 as part of test farms for Monsanto. Some argue that the public is better off not knowing whether milk comes from BST-treated cows. "It creates confusion in the minds of the consumer. It is going to impact my business negatively," said dairy farmer Ken Nobis.