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More on Monsanto Suing Maine Dairy over rBGH Issue

From Agribusiness Examiner #268
By Al Krebs <avkrebs@earthlink.net>
7/13/03

MAINE DAIRY SUED BY MONSANTO,
CLAIMS IT DISPARAGES rBGH

DAVID BARBOZA
NEW YORK TIMES

In another sign of how contentious food labeling issues have become in recent years, the Monsanto Company has sued a small milk producer in Portland, Maine, over the labeling of its dairy products.

Monsanto has accused Oakhurst Dairy Inc. of engaging in misleading and deceptive marketing practices by carrying labels that seem to disparage the use of artificial growth hormones in cows.

Monsanto is the maker of the only major artificial growth hormone, Posilac. It has been on the market since 1994 and is used in about a third of the nation's nine million dairy cows.

The company, which also pioneered the development of genetically modified crops, says its product was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. It also says that the Oakhurst labels suggest that milk that comes from cows treated with artificial growth hormones is somehow unsafe or lower in quality.

Since they were introduced nearly a decade ago, artificial growth hormones have come under vigorous attack from some consumer groups, organic farmers and other critics because of concerns that they are harmful to cows, that they make cows produce milk that is chemically and nutritionally different from natural milk and that they could induce higher rates of cancer in humans.

Many scientists, however, say those claims are largely fabricated and fictional. And Monsanto says its product, which is intended to bolster milk production, is derived from a natural protein produced in cattle.

Still, consumers have grown concerned about the use of the artificial hormones, which are banned from the market in Canada and the European Union.

Oakhurst Dairy and other New England dairy producers say that years ago they responded to consumer concerns by labeling their dairy products free of artificial growth hormones. Indeed, the state of Maine says that for dairy producers to use the state's quality seal of approval on their packages, the dairy processors must receive signed affidavits from dairy farmers who have pledged not to use artificial growth hormones on their cows.

Oakhurst's products carry the state's quality seal, and the company's milk cartons say, "Our farmers' pledge: no artificial growth hormones."

Stanley T. Bennett II, the president of Oakhurst Dairy, a family-owned company with sales of about $85 million a year, said today, in a telephone
interview: "We don't feel we need to remove that label. We ought to have the right to let people know what is and is not in our milk."

Other New England dairy producers say they use similar labels.

"In Maine and Vermont our farmers agree not to provide us with milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormone," said Lynne M. Bohan, a spokeswoman at HP Hood, a large, privately held regional dairy distributor based in Chelsea, Massachusetts.

And Ben & Jerry's Homemade, the popular ice cream maker in Vermont, also carries a label on every pint of ice cream that says its farmers pledge not to use artificial growth hormones.

"We've been vocally opposed to bovine growth hormone for a long time," said Lee Holden, a spokesman for Ben & Jerry's, now an independent subsidiary of the giant food maker Unilever. "One of the concerns is the health of the cows, but also there's the effect on family farmers."

But Monsanto, the maker of agricultural seeds and chemicals, has a reputation for responding strongly to critics of its biotech seeds and its artificial growth hormones.

The company has been pressing government officials in Maine to get Oakhurst to change its labels and tone down its marketing. On July 3, Monsanto filed its suit against Oakhurst in the United States District Court in Boston, seeking an injunction preventing Oakhurst from using the labels.

Monsanto says not only are the labels misleading to consumers but also that there is no way to distinguish between milk that comes from cows treated with artificial growth hormones and milk that comes from cows not treated.

In a statement released after the suit was filed, Monsanto said that "these misleading representations directly disparage Monsanto's Posilac bovine somatotropin product and the milk from cows supplemented with bovine somatotropin."

The National Dairy Council also says Monsanto's Posilac drug has been "repeatedly proven safe," according to Regan Miller Jones, a dietitian with the trade group.

The Center for Global Food Issues of the Hudson Institute has also become concerned about what it considers misleading dairy labels.

While officials at the center have not taken issue with the Oakhurst labels, Alex Avery, director of research and education at the center, said: "There's a whole lot of upheaval in the dairy industry because of different claims. People are confused and this is harmful to the dairy industry. You see labels that say no pesticides, no antibiotics, but all milk has tiny traces of pesticides. There are even tiny traces of DDT."

The center's new slogan to stop milk producers from marketing with misleading health slogans is not as catchy as "Got Milk?" but it's just as
simple: "Milk Is Milk."

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