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Organic Consumers Association

Kansas Complicating the Labeling of Dairy Products

Given a choice between serving big business or average consumers, trust the Republican-led Kansas Legislature to side with the fat cats.

The continuing fight over the coal-fired power plants was one example. Now another one: a bill imposing new labeling restrictions on dairy products advertised as being free of synthetic hormones.

Under HB 2121, hormone-free claims would be illegal for dairy products. Lesser claims that milk comes from cows not treated with growth hormone would require a disclaimer.

Besides suffering a blow to their marketing strategy, companies such as homegrown Shatto Milk Co. would face added costs for new labeling.

National companies such as Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream might be tempted to pull out of the state entirely.

"It just doesn't make sense for Kansas to go backwards," says Naomi Starkman at Consumers Union, one of 29 groups urging a veto by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Kansas is bucking a national trend. Consumer demand is growing for free-range chickens, cage-free eggs - and dairy products from cows whose milk production wasn't juiced up with bovine growth hormone.

Some supermarket chains won't even sell milk from cows treated with BGH.

That has sparked a backlash from dairy farmers who boost milk production with a hormone known as rBST that Monsanto developed in the 1990s.

Mainstream agribusiness groups, such as the large dairy co-ops, have pushed to outlaw hormone-free claims. Or, at the very least, they want to require disclaimers on labels stating that the federal Food and Drug Administration has found no scientific difference in milk from cows receiving hormone supplements and those that have not gotten the drug.

Consumer groups say it's an attempt to confuse shoppers who have a right to know what is or isn't in their food.

If you're a consumer-friendly governor like Sebelius, seems like a no-brainer, right? You veto the bill.

But here's where the politics turn tricky. The labeling rules are part of a bigger package of ag-related provisions backed by Sebelius' own administration. New pesticide regulations, for instance.

"There's some other things in there that the Department of Agriculture wants pretty bad," says GOP Rep. Larry Powell of Garden City, head of the House Agriculture Committee.

Yet another wrinkle: When she leaves Kansas to become U.S. secretary of health and human services, Sebelius will have oversight for the very agency that approved rBST and the advisory label that Kansas would make mandatory under this law.

"That makes this a national story," says Starkman at Consumers Union.

Sure does. Now to see how it turns out.

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