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Farm Bureau works to block hormone-free milk labeling

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WASHINGTON — Business is booming for milk made without giving cows growth hormone. Major grocers are moving toward more of those products, and Kraft Foods — a major buyer of milk in New York — recently announced a new line of cheese made without them.

But it is New York dairy farmers who are leading the charge to squelch that piece of the business.

New York Farm Bureau, which represents thousands of farmers across the state and holds considerable sway with lawmakers and policymakers, asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to block milk processors from labeling their products as made without the drug, called recombinant bovine growth hormone. Farm Bureau has not changed its position since November 2006, when its president, John W. Lincoln, wrote to the FDA asking that all such labels be ruled misleading, said a lobbyist for the organization, Julie Suarez.

What has changed is that business has ballooned for those products, which cost more in the stores even though the FDA says they are not significantly different or more nutritious than milk from treated cows. In some cases, farmers are negotiating higher prices for the milk they make this way.

The manufacturer of the hormone, the Monsanto Co., has fought back, urging the federal government and states to require disclaimers on labels reminding consumers that the FDA finds no significant difference in the milk.

So far the fight has not come to New York, but it is playing out in Ohio and Pennsylvania, both of which have sought to enforce more even-handed labeling. The FDA plans no additional action or guidance, having made its position clear a few years ago, a spokeswoman said.

The trouble, a Monsanto spokeswoman said, is that some states have ignored the FDA guidelines and allowed "hormone-free" labels without disclaimers, or with disclaimers in much smaller type than the claim.

New York Farm Bureau's stance, however, goes even farther than those states or Monsanto is asking. In his letter outlining the position of the group's 34,000 members, Mr. Lincoln made no allowance for disclaimers on labels, even though the FDA has recommended them for several years.

Telling the FDA that New York farmers have been asked by their marketing cooperatives and milk buyers to pledge not to treat cows with the hormone, Mr. Lincoln dubbed the hormone-free movement a "labeling gimmick." He predicted that higher prices would drive consumers away.

"The unfortunate result of this misleading labeling is that consumers are led to believe that milk that is labeled as such, is somehow more healthy or safe than "regular" milk. As I am sure that you are well aware, that is far from truthful," Mr. Lincoln wrote.

Scientists say all milk contains traces of growth hormone, synthetic or natural. The hormone injected into cows, going by the brand name Posilac and scientifically known as recombinant bovine somatotropin, is a variation of the cow's natural hormones. It can boost milk production by around 10 percent, although farmers say it can also cause health problems for cows that are driven into greater production — just as other production-boosting methods do.

Mr. Lincoln asked the FDA to prohibit all "hormone-free" labels until studies can be done to show health or food safety concerns with milk from treated cows.

Although his letter is a bit dated, Ms. Suarez said, Farm Bureau has not changed its position. Milk produced without Posilac does not generally fetch a farmer a higher price, she said, although she acknowledged that some farmer-owned cooperatives have negotiated higher prices for it.

Ms. Suarez also cited environmental issues. She said farmers who choose not to use the hormone may have a larger "carbon footprint," figuring that they need more cows to produce the same amount of milk.

New York Farm Bureau appears to be alone in its position among major farm and dairy groups. Dairylea Cooperative Inc., which handles most of the milk in New York either directly or indirectly, already has two supply chains in use — one for milk from treated cows, one for non-treated cows, said Leon C. Graves, director of operations and regulatory affairs for Dairylea's Dairy Marketing Services LLC. Dairylea also sells some milk to Horizon Organics, which forbids the injection of growth hormones.

"We go to great lengths to segregate the supply," Mr. Graves said.

A spokeswoman for Horizon, Kerri Miglionico-Phipps, said further labeling restrictions would deny consumers useful information.

"Changes in labeling would restrict communication to consumers that their milk was produced without the use of growth hormones," she said. "This prevents consumers from exercising full and free choice in determining which products they wish to purchase, and from knowing how their food is produced."

Ms. Miglionico-Phipps said the organic dairy industry has grown by 20 percent a year annually for the past decade, a figure she said is comparable to Horizon's performance.

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