By Margot Roosevelt Leeds
Monday, Dec. 22, 2003
The simmering issue of milk labels boils over when an agrochemical giant sues small farmers in Maine
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.