Animal rights protesters challenge ag official's comments

Tuesday, July 23, 2002

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Scantily clad female protesters wearing sheer green outfits designed to look like lettuce protested criticism by the director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture of a billboard that uses the images of Jesus and Mary to promote a campaign against milk.

The two protesters representing People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and dubbing themselves the "Lettuce Ladies" stood outside the Capitol serving dairy-free ice cream Monday and speaking out against Lowell Mohler, who challenged the billboard, paid for by PETA, along Interstate 29 in St. Joseph.

The billboard shows a nursing child and a message promoting breast-feeding. The infant is supposed to be Jesus, shown being breast-fed by his mother, Mary.

The message isn't just in favor of breast-feeding, it's also against cow's milk. It contains the phrase, "If it was good enough for Jesus," in large type followed by, "The breast is best --," in smaller text.

The protesters claim cows are abused in the milking process and mothers are misled about the benefits of cow's milk in a child's diet.

"Mr. Mohler has the right to make his statement, but I think he is misinformed about the health benefits of dairy. He needs to educate himself on the issues," said protester Brandi Valladolid, 26, of Phoenix. "He obviously has a financial interest in telling people that nothing is wrong. What we hope to accomplish is to let people know there are alternatives to dairy."

In a column issued to the media through his department, Mohler said the billboard is blasphemous, sensational and short on facts.

He also said the economics of milk production are important to Missouri. The agriculture department has said several dairy producers have complained to the department since the billboard went up in early June. Mohler, who was aware of the protest, said in a telephone interview Monday the protesters have a right to make their stand.

"I just think they need to get their facts straight," Mohler said. "I think it's important that I stand by my original comments to clarify the fact that dairy products -- by about any medical source -- are part of any healthy diet."

PETA, which has put up the same message in Jackson, Miss., said it chose St. Joseph because the city is named after Mary's husband.

Similar rallies are scheduled for St. Louis, Springfield and Kansas City. The billboard is expected to remain where it is through the end of the month.

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