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Dairy Industry Taking Notice of Ban on 'Absence' Milk Labels

In a precedent-setting move, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has ruled that dairies selling milk in the state no longer can use labels touting the product as being free of certain substances, such as recombinant bovine somatotropin.

The ban of so-called "absence labeling" means that companies cannot make milk-labeling claims such as "antibiotic-free," "hormone-free" or "pesticide-free."

Such labels mislead consumers, telling them what is not present in the milk vs. what's there, according to Dennis Wolff, the state's agriculture secretary.

"Consumers rely upon the labeling of a product to make decisions about what they buy and what to feed their families," Mr. Wolff said in a news release. "We're seeing more and more marketing that is making it hard for consumers to make informed decisions."

Pennsylvania's move is being watched closely by the dairy industry nationwide. Similar measures are being considered by a couple other states, including Ohio and New Jersey.

The issue isn't really on the radar at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection in Madison.

"I have not heard any scuttlebutt at all about our taking on this absence-claim issue," said DATCP spokeswoman Donna Gilson. "There's been no pushing from groups here, from either side."

Wisconsin law states that dairies can include rBST-free claims on labels as long as the label also says specifically that the product is derived from cows not treated with rBST. That designates the difference in farming methods vs. product quality, Ms. Gilson said.

The label also must say the Food and Drug Administration has not detected any significant difference between milk from treated and untreated cows.

Of the 140 dairy businesses whose labels have been reviewed so far by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, 16 East Coast companies have been using labels considered inaccurate or misleading because they make claims that can't be verified or imply that their product is safer than others because of what's not in it.

Companies with labels deemed to be false or misleading were notified late last month and must make labeling changes by Jan. 1.

The news hasn't been well received by some firms, including Pennsylvania-based Rutter's Dairy, which began promoting its milk as artificial hormone-free this summer. Rutter's responded with full-page newspaper ads and a call for consumers to protest.

According to the PDA, all processed milk is tested at least 10 times for pesticides and antibiotics, which aren't allowed in milk.

All milk contains hormones, and it's impossible to distinguish between naturally present and synthetic growth hormones, so rBST-free labels mislead consumers, Mr. Wolff said.

The hormone has been available to dairy farmers as a production-enhancement tool since Monsanto got FDA approval to sell Posilac in 1994.

Monsanto estimates that as many as a third of U.S. dairy cows - or about 3 million - are supplemented. Treated cows on average give 10 pounds more milk per day.

Despite FDA approval, concerns about its safety in human food linger on, and, prompted by consumers' health concerns, several milk bottlers have called on suppliers to provide them with more milk from cows not injected with the growth hormone.

The result has been a niche market for rBST-free dairy products among health-conscious consumers seeking a lower-cost alternative to more expensive organic milk.

Organic-milk purchases have been growing at a rate of more than 20 percent a year, but supplies are limited.

Milk labeled as rBST-free costs about 25 percent more than other milk, according to an American Farm Bureau spot check this fall.

Companies such as Kemps and Land O'Lakes are among the increasing number of companies that have introduced rBST-free milk product lines in recent months.

Neither company returned calls this week from The Country Today regarding the Pennsylvania label ban.

The Pennsylvania decision is good news for consumers in that state, Monsanto spokesman Michael Doane said.

"We welcome their initiative and applaud their efforts, but at the end of the day, we're firmly on the side of the consumer having accurate information," he said.

Certain labels are not really informing the consumer but trying to make a marketing claim, he said. For example, all milk is routinely tested for pesticides and antibiotics, so "pesticide-free" and "antibiotic-free" claims are unjustified.

"It raises consumer angst on issues that aren't consumer issues," Mr. Doane said. "Pennsylvania has drawn the line on all absence claims."

He said rBST-free labels cast a pall over other milk products, creating a good milk vs. bad milk scenario by implying to consumers there's a difference between that milk and those not labeled that way, when both products are wholesome.

Mr. Doane said announcements the past couple of years from dairies that they no longer will accept milk from rBST-injected cows has frustrated many U.S. farmers who want to use the production tool.

"With (farm milk) prices at $20 to $22 (per hundredweight), there's a tremendous return on investment for using this product," he said. "Historically, the return on investment has never been better."

Mr. Doane said Monsanto's most recent quarterly sales were the highest they've been in four years, and the company already has more doses booked for 2008 than in 2007.

Heidi Clausen may be reached at clausen@amerytel.net.