SALEM, Ohio – Hormone free. Antibiotic free. Pesticide free.
These phrases have caused some tension in the dairy industry recently. Some say it’s misleading to label milk with these claims, others say consumers need the information to make proper dietary decisions.
In Pennsylvania, the department of agriculture has stepped into the debate and will put a stop to such labeling in the Keystone State.
The department has notified 16 dairy companies that sell milk in Pennsylvania to change their labels by Jan. 1. Dennis Wolff, the state’s agriculture secretary, said the labels are misleading and inaccurate because they make claims that can’t be verified.
“Consumers rely upon the labeling of a product to make decisions about what they buy and what to feed their families,” Wolff said.
The department is seeing more and more marketing that makes it hard for consumers to make informed decisions, he added.
Milk labeled “antibiotic free” or “pesticide free” leads consumers to believe it’s safer than milk without those claims, according to PDA. However, it’s illegal to sell milk containing those substances and all processed milk sold in Pennsylvania is tested at least 10 times to ensure that it is, in fact, antibiotic and pesticide free.
This kind of “absence labeling”, telling consumers what’s not present in the milk as opposed to what is present, will be eliminated under the department’s order.
The “hormone free” labeling seen on some milk is considered inaccurate, according to Wolff, since all milk contains hormones. Other labels claim the milk is free of synthetic hormones, like rbST, but there’s no test to determine whether or not milk is actually free of such substances.
Wolff said the mislabeled products are often priced higher than those labeled correctly.
Chris Ryder, a spokesman for PDA, said the department heard a lot of discussion from producers, consumers and industry groups about the milk labeling situation. The state’s Food Labeling Advisory committee urged the department to look at its options.
“They felt there was a misbranding going on,” Ryder said.
PDA has authority over food labeling through the Pennsylvania Food Act and the milk sanitation law. It can disapprove any false or misleading label on milk and dairy products sold in Pennsylvania. To date, the department has reviewed labels from 140 dairy companies.
The 16 companies affected by the decision have until Jan. 1 to amend their labels. No other fine or punishment will be imposed.
“Removing that statement, if that was the only thing wrong with the label, would correct that,” Ryder said.
The companies in question are located in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)