Victory! HHS Nominee Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius Vetoes Milk Labeling Bill | Civil Eats

Victory! HHS Nominee Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius Vetoes Milk Labeling Bill

In a victory for local dairy farmers and consumers, Gov. Sebelius, President Obama’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, vetoed a controversial bill last Thursday that would have limited rbGH labeling on dairy products in that state. The bill, HB 2121, faced massive opposition from dairy, consumer, health, animal welfare and environmental organizations across the country; nearly 30 of which wrote a letter to Sebelius, urging her to veto HB 2121.

The bill passed by the Kansas State Legislature would have required an additional disclaimer on labels for dairy products produced from cows not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH or rbST), a genetically engineered, artificial hormone that induces cows to produce more milk. (For more about this issue, check out this recent post, or the Humane Society’s informative post.)

The Governor’s office sent out a press release late Thursday, explaining why she vetoed the bill:

“…the Bill before me…provides for changes in dairy labeling that could make it more difficult to provide consumers with clear information. The milk labeling provisions negatively impact a dairy producer’s ability to inform consumers that milk is from cows not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST).”

“Supporters of the bill claim it’s necessary to protect consumers from false or misleading information. Yet there has been overwhelming opposition by consumer groups, small dairy producers and retailers to this proposed legislation. Therefore, pursuant to Article 2, Section 14 of the Constitution of the State of Kansas, I veto HB 2121.”

Despite this good news, Sebelius’ veto still could be overturned. However, two key legislators told the Associated Press on Friday that supporters of tougher rules for milk labeled as hormone-free probably can’t override her veto of their bill. Both Senate President Steve Morris and Rep. Larry Powell, chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, noted that the bill failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto in either chamber when it passed earlier this month.

“The way the votes went, I don’t think we can override it,” Powell said. “I’m not sure we would want to waste the time trying.” The bill also contained other provisions on milk inspections, pesticide regulation and regulation of hog farms. Sebelius told the AP that legislators should approve those in separate legislation after they return Wednesday in their annual spring break. Morris said the issue is the perceived credibility for consumers of a hormone-free label on milk and whether that credibility is deserved. “I don’t think you need to mislead the consumers one way or the other,” Powell said.

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“Governor Sebelius clearly recognized that the bill’s provisions on dairy labeling would have made it harder for consumers to get the information they want about the dairy products they consume and would have hindered dairy farmer’s ability to tell consumers that their milk is from cows not treated with rbGH,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union, nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports.

Due to growing consumer demand, companies are removing rbGH from their dairy products across the country. In addition, over 160 hospitals all over the country have pledged to serve rbGH-free products and the past president of the American Medical Association said in a letter to all AMA members that hospitals should serve only milk produced without rbGH. A recent report compiled by the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility found that more than half of the 100 largest dairy processors in the country have gone completely or partially rBGH-free due to consumer demand.

In her veto message, Sebelius cited such opposition, which she described as “overwhelming.”

“There was an outpouring of opposition by consumer groups, small dairy producers and retailers to this proposed legislation,” said Patty Lovera, Assistant Director at Food and Water Watch. “As she ascends to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Governor Sebelius has left a legacy of support for the public interest in Kansas with this veto.”

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Naomi Starkman is the founder and editor-in-chief of Civil Eats. She was a 2016 John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford and co-founded the Food & Environment Reporting Network. Naomi has worked as a media consultant at Newsweek, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, GQ, WIRED, and Consumer Reports magazines. After graduating from law school, she served as the Deputy Executive Director of the City of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Naomi is an avid organic gardener, having worked on several farms.  Read more >

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