Monsanto urges FDA to stop “misleading” rBST-free labeling

Monsanto Company is striking back against a trend among dairy processors to ban the use of the company’s genetically engineered hormone, recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), and to label their products as rBST-free. Monsanto recently sent letters to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) complaining of what it called “false and deceptive advertising” by rBST-free dairy processors and urged the agencies to crack down on such practices.

In a press release announcing its action, Monsanto states, “The two letters outline how certain milk labels and promotions that differentiate milk based on farmer use of POSILAC bovine somatotropin are misleading to consumers and do not meet the standards set by laws and regulations for either the Federal Trade Commission or the Food and Drug Administration.”

Monsanto’s letter to the FDA states, “For years now, deceptive milk labeling practices have misled consumers about the quality, safety, or value of milk and milk products from cows supplemented with recombinant bovine somatotropin.”

“Crystal clear”
Monsanto’s letters were accompanied by examples of what the company called “false or misleading advertising” by 12 companies who produce rBST-free dairy products. Many of the examples came from the companies’ websites. For example, a statement from California-based Alta Deena Dairy’s website said, “No rBST in our products mean better and healthier cows.”

Rick North, project director, Program for Safe Food at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility argues that dairy companies are not misleading consumers by promoting their products as rBST-free. “It’s crystal clear; they are saying they are rBST-free.”

North believes Monsanto is trying to intimidate dairy processors and dissuade them from labeling their products as rBST-free. John Thomas, president of Vermont-based Thomas Dairy, one of the dairies cited by Monsanto, acknowledged the biotech giant’s influence. “They’re a huge company, and they can put pressure on small companies like us to get in line with what they want.”

Controversy has surrounded rBST, also known as rBGH, since the FDA approved it in 1993. An estimated 20% of dairy cows in the United States are injected with rBST to increase milk production. Consumer groups claim that milk from cows injected with rBGH contains high levels of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), which is considered a potent tumor promoter. A Canadian study found that rBST increased the risks of mastitis, failure to conceive, and lameness in cows. As a result, rBST is banned in Canada, Europe, and Japan.

“Getting clobbered”
North says Monsanto is taking action because they are losing business. “Monsanto is getting clobbered in the marketplace because dairies nationwide are going rBST-free,” he says. In 2005, Oregon-based Tillamook Creamery Association, the second largest producer of chunk cheese in the US, voted to ban rBST despite pressure from Monsanto. Since then, all dairy processors in Oregon except one have gone rBST-free. The trend has spread nationwide in recent months with the following dairies converting to rBST-free production: Wilcox Dairy in Washington, Great Plains Dairy in North Dakota, Darigold Farms and Meadow Gold in Montana, Sinton Dairy in Colorado, Byrne Dairy in New York, Garelick Farms’ processing facility in New Jersey, and H.P. Hood’s facility in Massachusetts. In addition, Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor, has converted to rBST-free production in several of its New England facilities, and grocery giant, Safeway, has done the same in Washington and Oregon.

The trend isn’t limited to dairies. Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill recently announced that it would serve only rBST-free sour cream in all of its more than 530 restaurants.

According to North, two recent events brought the rBST-free trend to a tipping point. First, coffee retailer Starbucks asked all its dairy suppliers to go rBST-free, and then California Dairies, which produces 8% of the milk supplied in the US, asked its 650 members to stop using rBST by August 2007.

“Customers want it”
Dairy processors emphasize they supply rBST-free milk because their customers want it. “Customers in our market always strongly sought us out as a good source for getting rBST-free milk,” says Mark Parrish, president, Crescent Ridge Dairy, based in Sharon, Massachusetts.

“We’re not trying to fight industry, we’re just supplying what our customers want,” says Brent Wilcox, director of sales and marketing, Wilcox Family Farm, based in Roy, Washington.

Jeff Kleinpeter, president, Kleinpeter Farms Dairy, based in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, says rBST-free is part of an overall trend of consumers becoming more health conscious. “They don’t want hormones in milk. This is a national trend,” he says.

A recent poll by Food & Water Watch found that 80% of consumers want milk produced without rBST to be labeled as such.

North says that the more consumers know about rBST, the less they want it. “This is what Monsanto is afraid of, and it all starts with labeling.”

“Confronted, addressed, and stopped”
But for Monsanto, rBST-free labeling is what they want stopped. The company goes so far as to claim that the rBST-free labeling practices “present a serious regulatory and public health concern.”

Monsanto says the FDA’s attempts to curb misleading rBST-free statements have not been successful. In 1994, the FDA issued guidance to dairy companies, stating that a disclaimer must accompany rBST-free statements, “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST treated cows.”

It is interesting to note that Michael Taylor who was then FDA deputy commissioner for policy wrote the disclaimer. Prior to joining the FDA, Taylor was an attorney who represented Monsanto, and he later worked for Monsanto after leaving the FDA.

Many companies, including those cited by Monsanto, use the disclaimer on labels or on their websites. Crescent Ridge Dairy includes it on its home page. Berkeley Farms uses it in text on a page called, “Get to Know Your Milk.” Thomas Dairy, Kleinpeter Farms Dairy, Wilcox Family Farm, and Promised Land Dairy all use the disclaimer. “From the beginning we avoided confrontation by following FDA guidelines. We have played by the rules,” says Gordon Kuenemann, executive vice president, San Antonio, Texas-based Promised Land Dairy.

That is not enough for Monsanto, which singled out the aforementioned companies despite their use of the FDA disclaimer. Monsanto says the FDA’s 1994 guidance is out of date and urges the agency “to publish a clearer, stronger guidance addressing the types of labeling practices that currently dominate the marketplace.”

Monsanto also urges the FDA to send out warning letters to rBST-free dairy producers and states, “it is in the public’s interest that such (labeling) practices be confronted, addressed, and stopped.”

The company also asked the FTC to investigate rBST-free advertising practices.

North calls Monsanto’s actions “absurd.” He says the main issue is consumer choice. “Monsanto is trying to take away consumers’ right to know,” he says. “If Monsanto gets its way, there will be no labeling, and consumers won’t be able to tell. That’s our concern.”

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report 2007. (May 2007).