US: Fighting on a Battlefield the Size of a Milk Label

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

IT may be the last stand of Posilac.

A new advocacy group closely tied to Monsanto
has started a counteroffensive to stop the proliferation of milk that
comes from cows that aren't treated with synthetic bovine growth
hormone.

The group, called American Farmers for the Advancement and
Conservation of Technology, or Afact, says it is a grass-roots
organization that came together to defend members' right to use
recombinant bovine somatotropin, also known as rBST or rBGH, an
artificial hormone that stimulates milk production. It is sold by
Monsanto under the brand name Posilac.

Dairy farmers are indeed part of the organization. But Afact was
organized in part by Monsanto and a Colorado consultant who lists
Monsanto as a client.

Afact has also received help from Osborn & Barr, a marketing
firm whose founders include a former Monsanto executive. The firm
received a contract in 2006 to help with the Posilac campaign.

Lori Hoag, a spokeswoman for the dairy unit of Monsanto, said her
company did provide financial support to Afact. But Ms. Hoag asserted
that the group is led by farmers, not Monsanto.

"They make all the governing decisions for their organization," she said. "Monsanto has nothing to do with that."

Afact has come together as a growing number of consumers are
choosing milk that comes from cows that are not treated with the
artificial growth hormone. Even though the Food and Drug Administration
has declared the synthetic hormone safe, many other countries have
refused to approve it, and there is lingering concern among many
consumers about its impact on health and the welfare of cows.

The marketplace has responded, and now everyone from Whole Foods Market to Wal-Mart Stores
sells milk that is labeled as coming from cows not treated with the
hormone. Some dairy industry veterans say it's only a matter of time
before nearly all of the milk supply comes from cows that weren't
treated with Posilac. According to Monsanto, about a third of the dairy
cows in the United States are in herds where Posilac is used.

And the trend might not stop with milk. Kraft is planning to sell cheese labeled as having come from untreated cows.

But consumer demand for more natural products has conflicted with
some dairy farmers' desire to use the artificial hormone to bolster
production and bottom lines, and it has certainly interfered with
Monsanto's business plan for Posilac.

Cows typically produce an extra gallon a day when they are treated
with Posilac. That can translate into serious money for dairy farmers
at a time when prices are near record highs.

So Afact has embarked on a counteroffensive that includes meeting
with retailers and pushing efforts by state legislators and state
agriculture commissioners to pass laws to ban or restrict labels that
indicate milk comes from untreated cows.

Last fall in Pennsylvania, Dennis Wolff, the agriculture secretary,
tried to ban milk that was labeled as free of the synthetic hormone
because, he said, consumers were confused. Mr. Wolff's office
acknowledged that it had no consumer research to back up his claim, and
he eventually had to scale back his plans when consumer groups and Gov.
Edward G. Rendell balked.

Instead, the state tightened up the language on milk labels to make sure it was more accurate.

But Posilac's supporters haven't given up.

In recent months, labeling changes have been floated in New Jersey,
Ohio, Indiana, Kansas, Utah, Missouri and Vermont, according to Michael
Hansen, who has tracked the issue as a senior scientist for Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports.

A Consumer Reports survey last summer found that 88 percent of
consumers believed that milk from cows not treated with synthetic
hormones should be allowed to be labeled as such.

Afact says it believes that such "absence" labels can be misleading
and imply that milk from cows treated with hormones is inferior. In
fact, the F.D.A. maintains that there is no significant difference
between milk from cows that are treated and from those that are not.

Afact also argues that some consumers are paying a premium for milk that doesn't include artificial hormones.

"We know it's a technology that makes us money and is safe for our
cows," said Carrol Campbell, a Kansas dairy farmer who is co-chairman
of Afact. Mr. Campbell said he became involved in the issue because his
cooperative called him and asked him to stop using Posilac; instead, he
found a new cooperative.

Ms. Hoag of Monsanto said her company was not actively pushing changes in milk labeling laws.

Advocates for Posilac, including Monsanto, have been complaining for
years about milk labeled as free of artificial bovine growth hormone.
In September 2006, Kevin Holloway, president of the Monsanto dairy
unit, gave a speech in which he said the "fundamental issue" was dairy
farmers' ability to choose the best technology. "Dairy farmer choice to
use a variety of F.D.A.-approved technologies is at risk," he said.

That same year, the Monsanto dairy unit hired Osborn & Barr to
handle, among other things, the Posilac brand, according to an article
in the St. Louis Business Journal.

In 2007, Monsanto and several dairy organizations met by phone to
"lay the groundwork" for a grass-roots organization, according to an
online dairy industry newsletter.

Afact was created in the fall of 2007. In addition to receiving
money from Monsanto, Afact has received help with its Web site from
Osborn & Barr, said Monty G. Miller, a Colorado consultant who was
hired to organize the group.

Afact believes that the push for milk from untreated cows is being driven by advocates like Consumers Union and PETA, "who make a profit, living and business by striking fear in citizens," Mr. Miller said in an e-mail message.

The group also believes it will be hard for food retailers to "move
away from the rBST-free stance without legislation and government
policy," according to an Afact presentation to dairy farmers in January.

In the presentation, Afact also listed "integrity," "honesty" and "transparent" as "words we wish to embody."

They could start by being more straightforward about who is behind Afact.

AMP Section Name:Food and Agriculture
  • 182 Health
  • 208 Regulation