rbST and Milk Labeling – A View from Ohio

Lyle Ruprecht
20009 Mishey Road
Butler, Ohio 44822

I am writing this letter as a concerned member of the dairy industry regarding misinformation surrounding the topic of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). As a member of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Dairy Label Review Committee, I have done a large amount of research on the topic of rBST and the FDA’s guidance on labeling relating to the use of rBST.

According to the Code of Federal Regulations and the Ohio Revised Code, any label that is false or misleading is not allowable.

In relation to the use of rBST in the production of milk, the FDA views any label claims that imply a compositional difference or imply that one type of milk is safer or higher quality is misleading. However, a label that conveys a difference in production methods such as “from cows not treated with rBST” that is accompanied by such language as “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows” is not misleading and allowable.

For a processor to make an allowable claim on a label they must first substantiate that claim. The FDA makes several suggestions on how to potentially do that, including “States may decide that affidavits from individual farmers and processors are adequate to document that milk or milk products received by the firm were from untreated cows.”

This method is currently the industry’s standard to verify claims. The FDA also suggests several other steps to help verify the accuracy of label claims but falls short of definitively requiring any system. The FDA also states that they are not going to police these labeling guidelines but rather “intend to rely primarily on the enforcement activities of the interested States to ensure that rBST labeling claims are truthful and not misleading.”

Since the approval of rBST thirteen years ago, the enforcement of FDA’s guidelines across the nation has been spotty at best. Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture(PDA) has announced that due to the growing prevalence of misleading labels in the dairy industry they will begin enforcing these guidelines as outlined by the FDA.

This action is completely defendable and long overdue. The only item that is controversial about their decision is their statement that production-related claims, which are approvable, will not be approved if they are supported solely by sworn statements, affidavits or testimonials. The PDA’s position is that the affidavits commonly used in the industry are not an effective system to guarantee that milk labeled as coming from cows not treated with rBST is actually such.

I agree completely. If we based other regulatory decisions on the honor system like dairy labeling, do you think everyone that pays income taxes would pay accurately if there was no IRS. Do you think that no one would break the speed limit if there were no police. The affidavit system is a joke.

However, processors love it because it allows them to make claims on their label without having to do much work. That is why the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents the processors, is opposed to the PDA’s guidelines. PDA’s stance is that firms that want to make rBST related claims need to come up with a better system to verify that their label claims are accurate.

Currently in Ohio, all of the major processors for fluid milk are on a schedule to force dairy farmers to quit using rBST by February 1, 2008 so that they can make rBST-related claims. In response to this movement the Department of Agriculture in Ohio has scheduled two meetings to discuss Ohio’s stance on the labeling of these products. Enforcement of the FDA’s guidelines in Ohio at this point in time has also been spotty because the rBST issue has not been as large as it is now becoming. I urge that Ohio adopts a policy similar to Pennsylvania’s so that dairy labels are accurate.

Consumers opposed to the PDA’s position think that free speech is being limited and that their right to know how the milk they consume is produced is being thwarted. I am in complete support of free speech and the consumer’s right to know. I am not in support of processors and retailers being allowed to make misleading claims or claims that are not verifiable because they stand to gain economically if they can make them.

I also know that there is already a system of verification in place for production related claims, which enable consumers to buy milk that has been produced without the use of rBST. It is called USDA Certified Organic.

Other arguments against PDA’s position have been that dairy farmers need to respond to consumer demand. The problem is that consumer demand is not driving this issue, it is processor and retailer driven. I know that stores such as Meijer, Giant Eagle and Buehlers have sold conventional milk directly next to milk with rBST related claims.

These stores know that sales of the milk with rBST related claims, many of which have been unapproved and misleading, is less than ten percent of total milk sales. Despite this fact, Meijer and Giant Eagle are among the retailers that have requested that their milk supply be 100% from cows not treated with rBST.

The truth is that unless Ohio adopts a policy similar to Pennsylvania’s, as of February 1st virtually all of the fluid milk available for sale in Ohio will be labeled with an rBST related claim. This milk will be more expensive and means that the vast majority of consumers that want to buy the cheaper, conventionally labeled milk will no longer have that option. I think their right to purchase what they want should also be protected.

My last concern is misinformation surrounding the safety of rBST. I do not have enough room here for a complete dialogue about the safety of rBST but will summarize by saying that milk from cows treated with rBST has been shown time and time again to be completely safe for consumers and for cows. If you do not believe me just ask a reputable science based organization such as the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the joint World Health Organization/Food and Agriculture Organization Committee of the United Nations, the American Medical Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Dietetic Association, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office or the European Union’s Agency for the Evaluation of Medicinal Products.

The unbiased science behind this issue is 100% supportive of rBST’s safety. Unfortunately, there is a huge amount of misinformation regarding rBST. I have spent the last two months viewing it all over the internet. Suffice it to say that in searching the internet I also found information proving that the earth is flat.

Again, I urge that Ohio adopts a policy ensuring that dairy labels are truthful and accurate and that my right as a consumer that wants to buy the cheaper, compositionally identical milk is protected.

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