Lou Gelfand: Is labeling milk as free of hormones a bad idea?

  • Article by: LOU GELFAND , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 22, 2008 - 3:41 PM

Some Minnesota dairy farmers and the Monsanto Co. want you to buy milk with a synthetic growth hormone called rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), which increases a cow's production by a gallon a day -- or more than 10 percent.

That would be a sweet bonus on top of today's record prices, buoyed by the federal price support program. Two-thirds of U.S. milk is produced under the program introduced in 1985 to support cash subsidies for producers selling in foreign markets.

When the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved synthetic hormone use in milk in 1994, it suggested that the container carry a disclaimer stating that "no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST treated cows."

That seemed a reasonable, ethical way of informing the consumer. But it gave the consumer leaning toward natural foods reason to ponder: "What's the point in buying milk with a synthetic hormone?"

Monsanto's product is named Posilac and its case is being made by AFACT, shorthand for American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology. AFACT has lobbied to ban or restrict labels that indicate milk comes from untreated cows.

Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania's agriculture secretary, attempted to ban the labeling of milk as free of the synthetic hormone, but he eventually retreated. According to Monsanto, about a third of the dairy cows in the United States are in herds where Posilac is used.

The dairy industry argued that "the rule changes the state wanted would have done little to revive the flagging market for milk derived from cows treated with hormones, imposing labeling restrictions upon dairy processors only serves to decrease demand for milk."

Consumer advocates point to the ban on milk with Posilac in the European Union, Australia and Japan. Lori Hoag, Monsanto spokeswoman, said Canada has approved Posilac's use, but no company there will market it.

The Twin Cities marketplace reflects the dairies' awareness of the consumer's sensitivity toward additives. A Kemps skim milk label says, in addition to the FDA's suggested phrase, the words, "milk from farmers who pledge to not use artificial growth hormones." For many that is reassurance.

Calls to AFACT's office were answered by a recorded message, and none was returned.

Lou Gelfand • lgelfand@startribune.com

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