An alliance of consumer, farmer, environmental, ethical investor, and food safety groups yesterday urged Ohio Governor Ted Strickland to repeal a February 2008 emergency rule he issued for labeling dairy products in his state. The rule stipulates that Ohio’s dairy producers cannot use the widely used and understood term “rbGH-free” on labels and must rather describe products as “from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones.” The rule also requires that a disclaimer must be included stating that there is “no significant difference between milk from rbGH-treated cows and milk from untreated cows.”
The International Dairy Foods Association and the Organic Trade Association have mounted an appeal, and the Ohio courts have postponed enforcement of the rule until its resolution. On July 23 these associations will enter mediation with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. The allied groups are encouraging opponents of the rule to write Governor Strickland and urge him to rescind it before the mediation gets underway.
“Governor Strickland has essentially made it illegal to tell the truth,” said Carol Goland, Executive Director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. “Rather than continue to defend this rule in litigation, we urge the Governor to rethink the wisdom of spending State resources to support a rule that interferes with Ohioans’ ability to make an informed decision about the dairy products they buy, with farmers and dairies’ rights to free speech, and with consumer right-to-know. In this era of increased concern over how our food is produced, Ohio should be making more information available, not less.”
Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH) is a genetically engineered, artificial hormone that induces cows to produce more milk. (Civil Eats has covered rbGH here and here and here.) Strickland’s rule is based on an 18-year-old FDA review; however, FDA’s own publications, as well as subsequent scientific studies have shown that there are significant differences, some of which may affect human health.
“This rule fails to serve consumers, dairy processors, and Ohio’s family farmers because it is confusing and generally misleading as to the potential dangers of rbGH-tainted milk,” said Dr. Michael Hansen, Senior Scientist at Consumers Union. ”Moreover, the disclaimer itself is misleading as there are, in fact, significant differences between milk from cows treated with rbGH and from cows not treated with the artificial growth hormone.”
Scientists from Canada and the EU have expressed health concerns over rbGH, specifically for cancer and increased antibiotic resistance. Along with most of the world’s industrialized nations, they have banned its use. Research indicates that cows treated with rbGH differ from normal cows in well-documented ways. Studies have shown that increased rates of bovine lameness, mastitis, reproductive problems, and other health effects result from its use. The possible effects on humans from long-term consumption of products from these animals are not known.
Due to growing consumer demand, companies are removing rbGH from their dairy products across the country. A recent Consumers Union poll [PDF] found that 93% of consumers want labeling of products as rbGH-free. Dairy farmers are responding to these market signals and more than 230 U.S. hospitals have signed a pledge committing to serve rbGH-free dairy products.
Since Strickland issued this emergency rule, similar measures have been proposed in other states, including Indiana, Vermont, Missouri, Utah, and Kansas. In every instance, they were soundly defeated. Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius, in one of her last acts before becoming U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, vetoed a bill calling for dairy labeling rules similar to the one in Ohio.
Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director for the Center for Food Safety thinks the rule is bad for farmers, as it could restrict their ability to inform consumers about rbGH-free products, and may end up forcing them to stop any kind of rbGH-free labeling. “The greatest impact would be seen by small farmers who can’t afford to print multiple versions of their packaging,” he said.