Agribusiness giant Monsanto Co. is challenging a growing trend among dairies to label their milk "hormone free," saying that claim misleads consumers into believing the cow growth hormone Monsanto makes is unsafe.
St. Louis-based Monsanto's aggressive move against a group of dairies to halt use of the labels could send ripples through the food industry.
In letters filed recently with the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, Monsanto protests that milk labels advertising the fact that cows did not receive the hormone - known variously as rBGH, rBST or Posilac, the trade name - have unfairly damaged its business, as well as that of dairy farmers who use the drug on their cows.
The FDA has found no difference between the milk produced by cows that received the hormone and the milk from cows that did not receive it, Monsanto says. The hormone increases milk production by about 10 percent.
Monsanto's action reflects a shift in the food industry in recent years, as consumers demand more natural and organic foods and seek labeling that explains just what went into their production. Cartons of eggs, for example, increasingly boast that the chickens that produced them were "cage-free." Beef is marketed as "grass-fed." Dairies began tagging milk as "hormone free" soon after Monsanto won FDA approval for its growth hormone in 1993.
Food producers that use such labels say that consumers have the right to know what is in their food and that they are responding to buyers' desires.
"Our customers tell us this is what they want," said Stanley Bennett, president of Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine, which sells non-hormone milk. "They ask us for this."
Monsanto's latest claims renew a fight the company started several years ago when it sued Oakhurst, which is owned by Bennett's family. The case was settled in 2003 when Oakhurst agreed to include language on its labels that explains that the FDA had found no significant difference between milk from cows that were given the hormone, and those that did not get the hormone.
Bennett and Oakhurst, though, have hardly shied away from using the no-hormones pitch in selling dairy products. The dairy pays farmers not to use the hormone.
"Oakhurst knows that consumers want a choice," its Web site says. "So Oakhurst will continue working only with local farmers who pledge not to use artificial growth hormone."
Monsanto contends that its hormone does not affect the cows' health or their milk's taste. An FDA review of the drug concurred.
"False and deceptive advertising regarding milk and [rBST] has misled consumers for years," Monsanto states in its complaint to the FTC. "These practices are clear violations of the Federal Trade Commission Act and result in higher milk price for consumers and less choice for dairy farmers."
While Monsanto won't release sales figures for its hormone, company spokesman Andrew Burchett said that "about a third of the dairy cows in the U.S. are in herds where farmers choose to use Posilac."
In Illinois, the state Department of Public Health reached a settlement with three dairy producers in 1997 that resolved a federal lawsuit over "hormone free" claims on labels. Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream, Organic Valley Farms, a producer of dairy and other items, and Stonyfield Farms, whose main product is yogurt, sued the state after it declined their request to use the "hormone free" language.
The Illinois settlement allows milk producers to use labels that read: "We oppose rBGH. The family farmers who supply our milk pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH."
Those labels also must include language that the FDA has not found a difference between milk produced from the injected hormone cows and those cows not given the hormone.
That's what is on milk labels sold at Whole Food Markets.
"Our customers are very interested in it," said Will Betts, the Midwest region grocery coordinator for Whole Foods Market Inc. "They are concerned with a lot of factors. They're concerned with what they put in their bodies. While it's true that the studies haven't proven any difference [between milk from the injected cows and those not given the hormone], they still want the most natural product they can get. The other issue is that they're concerned about the land and the animals."
In that regard, Whole Foods notes that "recent studies have supported earlier conclusions regarding the negative effects of rBGH/rBST on dairy cows. A report by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association on rBGH/rBST in November 1998 indicates that there are quantifiable reductions in the health of the cows treated with rBGH/rBST."
Monsanto's Burchett disputed those findings. In an e-mail, he wrote that the Canadian study "was not as comprehensive in its review of the scientific literature on rBST as the U.S. FDA pre- and post-approval review of Posilac."
He also said the study "included data based on the use of different product formulations, dose levels and application practices of prototype products from more than one company that were never approved for commercial use."
"Farmers depend on the health and well-being of their herds and will not choose to use products that are not beneficial," Burchett said. "A large number of dairy producers have used Posilac with great success since the product was introduced."
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency would have no immediate response to Monsanto's most recent complaint, which was submitted April 3.
But in a statement, the agency said: "This drug was only approved after [the] FDA established that it is effective and safe. Effectiveness means that Posilac does what the company claims [increases milk production]. Safety covers three main areas: safety of the food products to humans, safety to the target animal [the cow] and safety to the environment."
Monsanto's complaint includes examples of labels and advertisement from 13 dairies.
For instance, milk from HP Hood, a dairy operator based in Chelsea, Mass., carried a label that had "No Artificial Growth Hormones" on the package, along with a note that read "To Satisfy Our Customers."
Dutch-Way Dairy in Pennsylvania sells milk with labels saying, "No Added BST/The way it's meant to be!"
That marketing logic, Monsanto complains, distorts the research on Posilac and the FDA's conclusions.
The Kleinpeter Dairy of Louisiana "claim that milk from non-supplemented cow is healthier for children is patently false," Monsanto writes. "There is no evidence to suggest that milk from rBST-supplemented cows has any adverse developmental effect on children."
Stephen J. Hedges writes for the Chicago Tribune.
BOVINE HORMONE FACTS AND CONCERNS
Monsanto?s Posilac is a protein hormone, as distinct from a steroid hormone.
It supplements the bST (bovine somatotropin), produced by a dairy cow?s pituitary gland, which is among the hormones controlling milk production.
The FDA has found no difference between milk from supplemented and non-supplemented cows, and it says significant amounts of the hormone are not absorbed by humans who drink milk from cows that have received Posilac.
Some consumer activists are concerned because, according to the watchdog group Food & Water Watch, Posilac increases another hormone that in humans has been linked to cancer; other activists have suggested it leads to premature development in children.