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OCA & Consumers Union Slam Monsanto Lawsuit Against Maine Dairy

St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri)

August 10, 2003 Sunday

GOT POSILAC?

BY: Allyce Bess Of The Post-Dispatch

With trade issues over genetically modified foods on a back burner, Monsanto Co. and other biotechnology adherents are heating up a long-simmering battle over dairy labeling in the U.S.

Labels that say what's in dairy products -- but also what's not in them -- are at best confusing and, at worst, misleading, critics say. One industry group's battle cry: "The simple truth: Milk is Milk."

Creve Coeur-based Monsanto, for its part, is suing family-owned Oakhurst Dairy in Maine for a label that reads: "Our Farmers Pledge: No artificial growth hormones."

Monsanto makes rBST, or Posilac, an artificial growth hormone that when injected into cows increases milk production up to 15 percent. The FDA's position is that there is no significant difference between the milk produced by treated and nontreated cows, so dairies should not say their milk is "rBST-free," for example, but can say their milk is "from cows not treated with rBST." But the agency warned that such statements could be misleading without proper scientific context.

Monsanto spokesman Lee Quarles said the company believes Oakhurst's label strays from the FDA's guidance, duping consumers into thinking milk from non-rBST-treated cows is healthier.

"If Oakhurst labels reflected the scientific conclusions (about rBST) as well as its pledge, consumers could make choices based on their own personal preferences," said Quarles.

Scott Kieff, an assistant law professor at Washington University, said that, legally, a person can prefer milk made from non-rBST-treated cows, but companies cannot falsely lead people to believe it's healthier. "Why are customers buying (Oakhurst's milk)? Because it tastes better? Fine. Because they think it's cool? Fine. If they're buying it because they think it's healthier, and it turns out not to be, then they are being harmed," Kieff said.

But many consumer groups, such as the Consumers Union, have always been skeptical about rBST's safety.

They fear the product harms cows, and produces milk that accelerates puberty in children and increases cancer risks. Its use is restricted in numerous countries, and is effectively banned from use in Canada and the European Union.

"We think (the lawsuit) is outrageous and that it will backfire," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "The FDA guidance clearly states that dairies can truthfully label that they are not using rBST. . . . Clearly (Monsanto) doesn't have a leg to stand on."

Since rBST was approved by the FDA in 1993, and entered the U.S. market in 1994, numerous dairies - and some states - have shown disdain for the product.

Monsanto and some food trade groups have mounted a vigorous campaign in response.

In 1994, Monsanto settled out of court with two dairies over their labels concerning rBST. The terms of those settlements are confidential.

In 1996, several trade groups, including the International Dairy Foods Association and the Grocery Manufacturers of America, succeeded in getting a federal judge to halt Vermont from enforcing a state law requiring that dairy products from rBST-treated cows be labeled as such.

Now, though, Monsanto faces a tougher opponent.

Oakhurst is based in Maine. Maine has a "Quality Trademark Seal" program. One of the requirements for the seal for milk is that dairy farmers cannot inject their cows with rBST. Monsanto asked the state to suspend use of the seal for milk, to reconsider its appropriateness. Maine refused, and then Monsanto filed a lawsuit against Oakhurst. In a statement, Monsanto said it is not seeking monetary compensation, just a change in Oakhurst's label.

But Monsanto has a steadfast foe in Oakhurst Dairy's president, Stanley Bennett III.

"We have no interest in settling," said Bennett in a phone interview. Neither would he qualify his label with a statement that rBST is not harmful. That, Bennett said, would be an advertisement for Monsanto. "It's absurd, because we're in the business of marketing milk, not Monsanto's drugs. . . . Consumers have told us that it's something they don't want. . .. .. We make no claims about whether the product is harmful."

A routine scheduling conference between lawyers for both sides and a judge in Boston, Mass., where Monsanto filed the lawsuit, is scheduled for Aug. 13.

"In a perverse way, I'm sort of happy this happened," said Michael Hansen, a research associate at the Consumer Policy Institute in Yonkers, N.Y., a division of the Consumers Union. Hansen hopes the publicity will stimulate a debate about the safety of rBST.

In a letter Hansen wrote to Maine's attorney general regarding Monsanto's request that Maine suspend use of its quality trademark seal for milk, Hansen said there were still unanswered questions about rBST. He said Monsanto's own studies on rBST indicate that it increases levels of IGF-1, or Insulin-like Growth factor, in the milk. Hansen cited studies that indicated higher levels of IGF-1 increase cancer risks in humans.

"All this new research on IGF-1 . . . clearly show there are unanswered health questions associated with the consumption of milk from (rBST)-treated cows," Hansen wrote.

Monsanto's lawsuit is part of a general backlash against increasingly successful milk-producers, such as organic dairies, that some in the conventional dairy industry say are exploiting unfounded consumer fears.

Robert Byrne, vice president of regulatory affairs at the National Milk Producers Federation, a trade association that represents 60,000 conventional and organic dairies and has no position on the use of rBST, said dubious labels have increased since rBST entered the U.S. market.

"At first, most people followed the FDA guidelines to the letter," said Byrne. "But over the past 10 years, you've had people pushing the envelope."

The Center for Global Food Issues has launched an all-out war against milk labels it claims are misleading. The group is an arm of the Hudson Institute, which has received funding from Monsanto and other agrochemical companies.

It places ads with slogans like "Milk is Milk," and "Stop Labeling Lies," in various print outlets. The campaign, says the center's president, Dennis Avery, is intended to "prevent the loss of biotechnology in agriculture."

"There is no indication that natural is better than biotech," said Avery.

Avery called the campaign a "guerrilla effort" aimed at companies like Horizon Organic Holding Corp., of Colorado, which controls about 70 percent of the U.S. organic milk market.

"This is not Aunt Jemima against the big, bad plantation owner," said Avery..

Horizon's milk label reads: "This milk was produced without the use of hormones, antibiotics or pesticides." Avery points out that all milk is produced with hormones, because they naturally occur in cows.

Horizon was recently acquired by Texas milk giant Dean Foods, the leading nonorganic producer of fluid milk in the United States. In an e-mailed statement, Horizon affirmed its commitment to not use rBST.

Dan Benedetti, president of Clover Stornetta, Inc., an organic dairy in Northern California, actively markets his products as having been produced without rBST. Benedetti said Monsanto should do more to educate the public about rBST to gain skeptical consumers' trust.

"I'm not certain that the time, effort and money was spent upfront to allay the concerns of consumers," said Benedetti. When rBST came out, Monsanto pitched the product to numerous dairies, including Clover St ornetta, said Benedetti.

"Our request was that they inform the public (about rBST) and don't leave it up to the dairy industry and ranchers to do their education for them," said Benedetti. "The best road toward the consuming public is openness."

* * * * *

NEWS: Monsanto and industry groups are fighting dairies that shun Posilac (or rBST), a hormone that increases cows' milk production up to 15 percent.

ANALYSIS: Company officials say dairies that label their products as non-rBST are misleading the public. "Organic" dairies say they're just giving consumers what they want.

NOTES:
LABELING DAIRY PRODUCTS; Reporter Allyce Bess:; E-mail: abess@post-dispatch.com; Phone: 314-340-8157; Reporter Allyce Bess writes about business issues for the Post-Dispatch.

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