Ohio Considers Controversial Milk Labeling

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Cows munch on feed as they're milked on the Zimmerman farm east of Richwood, OH.
Cows munch on feed as they're milked on the Zimmerman farm east of Richwood, OH.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture is expected to release new rules on milk labeling as early as this week. At issue is whether producers will have the right to label their milk as synthetic growth hormone-free.

On the Zimmerman farm northeast of Marysville, John Van Gundy calls another group of cows into the milking parlor. John has help from brothers Rick and Gabe.

“The whole herd, we’re milking about 37, it’ll take me about an hour and, oh, an hour and a half of milking time,” Van Gundy says.

The cows are hooked up to the milking machine. Then once they’re milked, they go back to the pasture.

This dairy was started in 1992 by Sylvia Zimmerman, just about the time the chemical company Monsanto started marketing Posilac, an artificial hormone that boosts the amount of milk a cow can produce. Zimmerman says she was opposed to it from the beginning.

“When you inject a cow with this growth hormone you are putting an extra strain on her, Zimmerman says. “And her body is just revved up. And she is going to burn out. It just didn’t sound right to me. And so I just was never going to use it.”

The Ohio Department of Agriculture is in the final stages of writing what could be controversial milk labeling rules. One proposal would prohibit labels that say, “made without artificial bovine growth hormone,” or “rBGH free.”

Dairy producers who use Monsanto’s hormone say that kind of labeling implies there’s something wrong with their milk.

“I’m pro being able to use the best management practices to provide the best quality milk to the consumer at the most fair possible price.”

Rob Bouic lives and works on a Union County farm that’s been in his family for more than a century. He uses rBGH, and he’s a member of the Ohio Dairy Labeling Advisory Committee. He says Posilac is an environmentally friendly product.

“We can produce more milk with fewer cows and therefore have less manure, less methane production. It is an environmentally friendly product,” Bouic says.

“Every cow that’s living and breathing requires a certain amount of food and energy just to be alive. To replace that milk we have to milk more cows. To produce more cows, we have a larger carbon footprint,” Bouic says.

But is rBGH, also known as rBST, dangerous? “No,” says another member of the dairy labeling committee. Normand St. Pierre is a professor of animal science at Ohio State University. St. Pierre says there’s no risk from drinking milk from cows treated with the artificial hormone.

But more and more retailers are demanding that the milk they buy from producers is rBGH-free. That’s ironic, says dairyman Rob Bouic, who quotes a Farm Bureau study that shows only about 10 percent of consumers care how their milk is produced.

“The milk processing industry is going away from the most progressive producers; those who use rBST. Kroger, Dean Foods and the other major marketers are ignoring the other 90 percent to satisfy 10 percent. That’s very frustrating to me,” Bouic says.

Also frustrating is the lack of a uniform standard that identifies who is and who is not using the artificial hormone. Dairy operators who don’t have begun signing affidavits stating they run an rBST-free dairy. The company that purchases Sylvia Zimmerman’s raw milk denotes hers as hormone free with a green plastic ring on her milk holding tank.

“See that little green bracelet there on the bulk tank? That indicates that this milk doesn’t have any [artificial growth hormone] in it,” Zimmerman says.

Groups like Consumers Union have been fighting state rules that would prohibit labels that say rBGH-free. Consumers Union researcher Michael Hansen.

“It’s a basic consumer right-to-know issue and it’s also a free speech issue,” Hansen says. “Companies are absolutely allowed to make truthful claims on their labels and say that the milk does not come from cows with rBHT, or that its free of rBGH. Those are truthful statements and should be allowed on the labels.

Just last week Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell overruled his state’s agriculture department which would have prohibited hormone labeling. Rendell said the public has a right to information about how their milk is produced. Ohio’s new rules could be released as early as this week.