Mo. lawmakers consider banning dairies from calling milk hormone-free

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) -- Missouri and Kansas may be the newest battlegrounds in a national fight between dairies that want to tell consumers their milk is hormone-free and the hormone manufacturers, who worry such labeling will hurt sales.

Lawmakers in both states are considering legislation that would limit what dairies could print on their bottles and cartons.

The Missouri bills would ban any mention of hormones, while the Kansas legislation would require the claims be printed alongside federal language denying any difference in milk coming from hormone-treated animals.

The bills, which mirror legislation passed and debated in other states, rub some dairy owners the wrong way.

"I should be able to tell my customers that we do not treat our cows," said Leroy Shatto, whose Osborn-based Shatto Milk Co. prints "No growth hormones used" on the front of its glass milk bottles. "A lot of my customers -- probably most of my customers -- want milk that doesn't have anything extra."

The Food and Drug Administration has put out language saying, "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH-treated and non rBGH-treated cows," referring to a type of hormone some dairies use to increase milk production.

Some customers, however, don't trust the FDA and want to avoid milk from hormone-treated animals.

"It's my choice, whether it's healthier or not," said shopper Karen Schaefer as she grabbed two bottles of Shatto milk. "If they don't use the hormone, they should be allowed to say that."

Shatto prints the FDA language denying any difference from hormone treatments on the back of his bottles, but backers of the legislation say consumers may miss the message.

"That's what scares the devil out of me," Shatto said. "If they made me get rid of my bottles and start over, it would probably put me out of business."

Much of the push-back against "hormone-free" labeling is coming from St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., whose recombinant bovine growth hormone is the country's largest-selling dairy pharmaceutical.

It has been approved for use in the U.S. since 1994, although safety concerns have spurred an increase in hormone-free product sales. The hormone is banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia and Japan, largely out of concern that it may be harmful to herd health.

Monsanto notes that no clinical studies have shown any safety problems from the hormone. But by allowing dairies to advertise themselves as hormone-free, Monsanto says, they are misleading consumers into thinking milk without those labels is less healthy or even dangerous.

So far, efforts to ban hormone-free labeling have stalled.

Pennsylvania, the nation's fifth-largest dairy state, banned the hormone-free labeling in October, but later rescinded the ban.

Last month, an Indiana lawmaker pulled legislation that would have made it illegal to label dairy products as free of artificial growth hormone, because no test can determine if the hormone was used.

Ohio has held hearings on the issue, and the state's agriculture director is expected to issue a decision early this year on dairy labeling.

Among those supporting the legislation in Missouri is Fritz Hegeman, who operates a dairy in Cosby.

Hegeman used hormones on his cows until December, when his cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, said it was shifting away from hormone treatment. He said his cows are now producing 10 to 12 percent less milk, which he said would ultimately drive up milk prices.

He also said that milk labels can confuse customers. For example, he said small dairies have labeled their milk as "free of antibiotics," but all milk has been antibiotic-free for years.

"In saying their milk doesn't contain something, they are implying that other products do, which often isn't the case," Hegeman said.

Brad McAnally, store director for the Hy-Vee grocery store chain, agreed, saying the chain added "no added hormones" to its private label branded milk last month, partly to compete with smaller competitors like Shatto. He said food labels have gotten out of hand, using terms such as "farm-fresh," "all-natural" and "organic" without any agreed-upon definition of what those terms mean.


Information from: St. Joseph News-Press, http://www.stjoenews-press.com

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