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Time Magazine Covers the Monsanto-Oakhurst Dairy Story

Time Magazine
December 22, 2003
Got Hormones?;
The simmering issue of milk labels boils over when an agrochemical giant
sues small farmers in Maine
BY Margot Roosevelt/Leeds

Down a dirt road, tucked in rolling fields, John Nutting's farm is a
picture of tranquillity. A wintry breeze sighs through the forest.
Black-and-white Holsteins chew their cuds in a lazy rhythm. Only the large
sign hammered onto a red barn attests to the defiant mood in Maine dairy
country: OUR PLEDGE--NO ARTIFICIAL HORMONES.

Hormones are a hot issue in these parts. As do at least 85% of Maine's milk
producers, Nutting signs an affidavit each year vowing not to inject his
cows with recombinant bovine somatotropin (RBST), a genetically engineered
growth hormone. "We're proud of the way we farm," says the third-generation
dairyman. "Consumers have the right to know how their milk is made."

Not necessarily. A food fight has erupted in New England between those who
would label their produce as they see fit and those who argue that some of
those labels give customers a false impression. Chief among the latter is
Monsanto Corp., the agrochemical giant that markets RBST and is fighting a
rearguard action to quell consumer resistance to its product.

The St. Louis, Mo., multinational demanded last year that Maine suspend its
official Quality seal, which is granted only to milk from uninjected cows.
When the state refused, Monsanto took another tack, suing one of Maine's
leading dairies in federal court in Boston. The suit charged that Oakhurst
Dairy, the company that buys Nutting's milk, is misleading consumers by
advertising a no-artificial-hormone pledge, implying that its milk is safer
and healthier. "Milk is milk," says Janice Armstrong, Monsanto's director
of public affairs.

That sets the stage for the latest chapter in a battle that has raged for
more than a decade. Critics claim--although studies are inconclusive--that
using synthetic bovine growth hormone could lead to such health problems as
premature puberty or even cancer. But the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA) studied the issue before it approved RBST in 1993, when it reported
that tests showed no significant difference between the milk from treated
and untreated cows.

Several groups, including Consumers Union and the Center for Food Safety,
say the tests did in fact reveal worrisome differences and that the FDA
incorrectly interpreted the data. Activists campaigning against genetically
modified (GM) food want the U.S. to ban RBST outright, as Europe and Canada
have. As for Maine, "we would rather be safe than sorry," says assistant
attorney general Francis Ackerman, who is preparing the state's brief to
intervene on Oakhurst's behalf.

Today one-third of U.S. dairy herds are injected with RBST, which
stimulates cows to produce as much as 15% more milk. Lawsuits over labeling
have forced the repeal of a Vermont hormone-disclosure law and stopped
dairies in Illinois and Texas from touting their milk as RBST-free. Earlier
this year the FDA took up the fight, warning producers in Florida, New
York, New Jersey and Minnesota against using labels that say "no hormones"
or "hormone-free." The agency has said nothing, however, about labels like
Oakhurst's that refer only to farmers avoiding "artificial" or "synthetic"
hormones. Monsanto would like Oakhurst to emulate Ben & Jerry's and
Stonyfield Farm, whose no-synthetic-hormone labels also carry language
noting the FDA's approval of RBST. But Stanley Bennett, whose family built
Oakhurst from a two-horse outfit in 1921 into an $ 85 million modern
processor, says he won't be "bullied" by the $ 4.7 billion biotech
behemoth. "We are in the business of marketing milk," he says, "not
Monsanto's drugs."

Is the battle over the milk of Maine about free speech? Or is it about
dairies using scare tactics to sell more product? "Oakhurst's marketing
campaign is based more on fear than on facts," says Monsanto's Armstrong.
Consumer groups say if farmers can't label their milk as coming from cows
free of artificial hormones, it could set a precedent for challenging such
popular labels as "MSG-free," "no artificial flavors," "free-range" and
"GM-free." Maine attorney general Steven Rowe plans to ask Vermont, New
Hampshire and Massachusetts to help him fight Monsanto when the suit goes
to trial in January. "We in New England are into purity," he says. "The FDA
may not have a problem with artificial growth hormones, but many consumers
do." That's what farmers like John Nutting are counting on.


 

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