Cows without hormones – or consumers without choice?

Last month, in an Orwellian stretch of logic and without warning or any public discussion, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) notified 19 dairies that “their labels are false or misleading and need to be changed” So, what kinds of labels were so terrible that the PDA felt they had to be removed from milk cartons immediately? Labels that told the consumer that the cows that produced the milk had not been given any artificial hormones.

Examples of some of the supposedly “misleading” labels include, “Our farmers’ pledge: no artificial growth hormones,” “From cows not treated with the growth hormone rBST,” and “free of artificial growth hormones.” As of January 1, 2020, these labels will be illegal. The PDA says that such labels “confuse” consumers, “making it hard for consumers to make informed decisions.”

Some cows are in fact given an artificial hormone, produced by Monsanto. Called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), it is a genetically engineered drug designed to increase milk production. However, farmers who don’t use the drug have discovered that many consumers actually prefer their milk produced the natural way, and are using their non-use of the hormone as a selling point.

We find the PDA’s sudden prohibition against farmers telling consumers they are not using hormones to be surprising, to say the least. Some 13 years ago, when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made its controversial decision to approve the hormone use, it also issued guidance specifically saying that dairies whose farmers didn’t use the artificial hormone could label their milk as “from cows not treated with rbST/rbGH.”

During the years since then, consumers have increasingly sought out milk from untreated cows. Recently, a significant number of stores and chains, including Starbucks, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Krogers, and Publix, have begun offering milk and other dairy products labeled as coming from cows not treated with rbGH or rbST.

In late 2002 Monsanto asked the Maine Attorney General to declare “Our Farmer’s Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones” labels “misleading” but he refused. (See our letter to the Maine Attorney General, asking that he not grant Monsanto’s request [PDF]). In 2007, Monsanto asked the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to take action against such labels, but they refused as well. In late August, the FTC wrote to Monsanto, “The FTC agrees with FDA that food companies may inform consumers in advertising, as in labeling, that they do not use rBST.” However, in the Governor and the Secretary of Agriculture of the state of Pennsylvania, Monsanto has apparently found a sympathetic ear.

Questions also remain about the safety of rbGH use, which FDA approved in 1993, but was rejected in Canada and the European Union (our op-ed on this issue can be found here [PDF]).