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Hormone-free milk labels cause a stir

WASHINGTON - 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.

WASHINGTON - 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 U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission, Monsanto protests that milk labels touting 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.

Food industry shift

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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," says Stanley Bennett, president of Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine, which sells nonhormone 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 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."

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While Monsanto won't release sales figures for its hormone, company spokesman Andrew Burchett says "about a third of the dairy cows in the U.S. are in herds where farmers choose to use Posilac."

Illinois settlementIn 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," says 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."

An FDA spokeswoman says the agency has no immediate response to Monsanto's most recent complaint, which was submitted April 3.

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