REYNOLDSBURG, Ohio – For Carol Goland, it’s about a consumer’s right to know. For Brenda Hastings, it’s about not misleading those who buy dairy products. For Rob Bouic, it’s about being able to verify the claims stamped on a label.
The three are part of Ohio’s Dairy Labeling Advisory Committee, which met Dec. 6 to provide input on how the Ohio Department of Agriculture should shape the state’s dairy labeling policy.
The 20-member committee is made up of dairy farmers, processors, consumers, veterinarians, researchers and interest groups from the industry. For more than three hours, the committee debated all sides of Ohio’s dairy labeling laws and heard emotional remarks from the public.
RbST. Most of the discussion centered on rbST-free labels. The labels have caused a stir in the dairy industry recently, with many people claiming that such labeling misleads consumers.
Recombinant bovine somatatropin, or rbST, is a synthetic hormone used to boost production in dairy cattle. The product was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993 and research has shown there is no significant difference between milk produced with rbST and milk produced without it.
There is no test to determine whether or not milk is produced with an rbST supplement.
The clash over the product’s use and labeling intensified when processors started asking dairy farmers to sign affidavits promising to stop using rbST. If farmers don’t sign, their milk will no longer be picked up.
Misleading or helpful? Robin Steiner, a consumer on the committee, said she conducted 10 interviews with shoppers at five grocery stores. According to Steiner, the shoppers assumed the rbST-free label meant the milk was healthier, even though none of them had ever heard of rbST before.
“The claims they’re putting on there are making people think they’re buying something healthier,” said Steiner, of Creston, Ohio.
Those claims, she added, are increasing the retail price.
Steiner is a former employee of Monsanto, the company that manufactures an rbST product called POSILAC. However, she said her interest on the committee is purely as a consumer and mother.
Hastings, a milk producer from Chardon, Ohio, said any attempt to make one kind of milk appear superior to another is deceptive.
“Anything that leads a consumer to think something is different is misleading,” she said.
But Eriyah Flynn of Columbus, who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting, disagreed with that argument.
“As a consumer, I absolutely want to know what’s in my food,” she said. “There should be labeling on everything.”
Goland, executive director of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, said consumers are better informed than they get credit for and rbST-free labels are a way to be honest, informative and accurate with the public.
Guidelines. In the past, Ohio has deferred to the FDA’s voluntary guidelines on dairy labeling. The guidelines recommend that labels read “from cows not treated with rbST” rather than “rbST free.”
But those guidelines aren’t law and the state is now looking to create a definite policy.
Verify. Several committee members expressed concern over how an rbST-free label would be verified since there is no way to test for the product. And many wondered what agency would be in charge of enforcing the rbST-free claims.
Committee member Steve Schmid, president of Smith Dairy in Orrville, Ohio, said it’s up to the manufacturer and marketer to make sure the product and label match. And the signed affidavits from producers are enough to label a product rbST-free.
“There has to be some trust somewhere,” he said. “We’re trusting the producer to say, ‘I didn’t use it.'”
Looking for proof. Richard Miering, a committee member and veterinarian in Ohio State University’s Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, said that logic just doesn’t work for him.
“Affidavits are great, but they’re not proof,” he said.
Bouic, a dairy farmer from Milford Center, Ohio, said the rbST-free labeling is acceptable only if there’s a scientific way to back it up.
“I don’t have a problem with it if there’s some way to verify it,” he said. “Independently verify it.”
But if the claim can’t be proven, the dairyman said it doesn’t belong on a label.
“If it’s on the label and it’s not verifiable, it’s false and misleading,” he said.
Committee member Neal Linebaugh, of Dairy Farmers of America Mideast Area, proposed alternative wording for dairy labels. He said his organization would support labeling along the lines of: “The farms that supply our plants have signed a form not to use” rbST.
ODA’s job. While ODA does govern Ohio’s labeling laws, it does not fall under the department’s authority to regulate the use of rbST, according to Lewis Jones, chief of ODA’s dairy division.
The dairy labeling committee will meet again Dec. 19 in Reynoldsburg for further input and discussion.
ODA Director Robert Boggs is expected to make a decision on the state’s dairy labeling policy early in 2008.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or bye-mail at email@example.com.)