On January 17, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture issued new rules allowing milk producers to inform consumers if they don't use recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH) on their cows. This is good news. In October, the state had published regulations that prohibited dairies from indicating anything on milk labels about their use or non-use of hormones. The rules were supposed to go into effect on February 1, 2008, but the October regulation has been withdrawn and replaced with the new rule.
This is a victory for free speech, free markets, sustainable farming and the consumer's right to know. Consumers increasingly want to know more about how their food is produced, and particularly whether it is produced in a natural and sustainable manner. Indeed, a poll by Consumer Reports National Research Center, conducted in June 2007, found that 88 percent of those polled thought that milk from cows not treated with rbGH should be allowed to be labeled as such. There is no justification for prohibiting information about rbGH use on a milk label. Pennsylvania deserves credit for realizing that its initial regulation prohibiting such labeling was flawed, and for reversing its position.
RbGH is a drug product marketed by Monsanto (as Posilac) that raises a cow's milk output. However consumers have increasingly turned to organic milk and other milk brands that require their farmers to eschew use of the hormone on their cows. The number of cows treated with the drug has dropped from 22.3 percent of all dairy cows in 2002 to 17.2 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
While the USDA has ruled that that rbGH use is safe, it has been prohibited in Canada and the European Union. Consumers Union questions its safety.
Many Pennsylvania dairy farmers have pledged not to use rbGH, and are advertising this fact on milk labels. The new rules will allow them to continue to do so. Other states including Indiana, Missouri and Ohio have been considering regulations similar to those that Pennsylvania abandoned. New Jersey had until recently taken the matter under consideration but has since determined not to take action.
One new requirement in the Pennsylvania regulations is that dairies must maintain procedures to verify any production methods claimed on their labels, including keeping a paper audit trail. The new requirements about verification are valuable. It is important that these claims be truthful and that there are safeguards in place to prevent cheating.
The new regulations bring Pennsylvania label requirements in line with the recommendations of the FDA.
A broad coalition of groups including consumers, dairies, farming groups, and environmental organizations requested the changes. Their letter is available online.