SALEM, Ohio — Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland enacted an emergency rule Feb. 7 that would allow consumers to see, in plain language, whether the milk they’re purchasing came from cows treated with rbST.
The temporary rule, in effect until the state creates a permanent one, provides guidelines for label wording and establishes a verification requirement for marketing organizations and labelers.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture will approve labels that read “from cows not supplemented with rbST” if the claim is verifiable.
The label must also include a U.S. Food and Drug Administration disclaimer stating, “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-supplemented and non-rbST-supplemented cows.”
The disclaimer must be printed on the same label panel as the rbST-free claim, and in the same font, size, style, case and color.
The rule also prohibits claims regarding the composition of milk, as opposed to the manner in which milk is produced, such as ‘no hormones,’ ‘hormone free,’ rbST-free, rbGH-free, and ‘bST free’.
RbST, or recombinant bovine somatatropin, is a synthetic growth hormone used to stimulate milk production in dairy cattle. The state department of agriculture estimates between 10-15 percent of Ohio milk production is due to use of the hormone.
Clear and consistent. “Our No. 1 goal is to provide consumers with safe and healthy foods, and to offer clear and consistent information about the food consumers purchase,” Ohio Agriculture Director Robert Boggs said.
“Ohio’s dairy labels will offer consumers information about how their food is produced.”
Rights. Boggs acknowledged milk labeling is a hot issue, since making rbST-free claims directly on product labels can confuse consumers.
“The department and agricultural community and food industry have all struggled hard with this issue,” he said.
How will they know? Since there is no test to detect rbST in milk, the rule places the burden of verification on the marketing organization or labeler, which must be able to prove production claims are accurate through documentation.
The rule affects approximately 40 Ohio processors and cheese plants, according to ODA.
Boggs said processors can verify the claims through producer-signed affidavits, farm weight tickets, and processing plant audit trails. Those record-keeping documents must be available for ODA inspection.
ODA will also accept other methodologies to verify rbST claims from processors as long as they’re “enough to protect consumers,” according to Boggs.
He also said the state “expects to be able to determine where each [shipment of milk] came from” in case there’s a need to trace it for verification.
But some producers say those verification methods aren’t enough.
Disappointed. Brenda Hastings of Hastings Dairy in Burton, Ohio, said any claim made on a food label should be backed by scientific testing, not just an affidavit.
While Hastings was glad to see the ban of rbST-free and hormone-free labels, she was disappointed the new rules don’t rely on science.
The dairy farmer also worries that the claim “from cows not supplemented with rbST” followed by a disclaimer that there’s no difference between milk from cows supplemented with rbST and those not supplemented will cause confusion and undermine confidence in the dairy industry. And that combination might lead shoppers to quit buying milk altogether, Hastings said.
Other side unhappy, too. Other stakeholders were also unsatisfied, but for different reasons.
Carol Goland, executive director of the The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, said the rule is too severe in determining what kind of wording can be placed on a label.
“But even though consumers’ right to know has been successfully defended, this new rule is otherwise extreme in the restrictions it imposes,” Goland said.
The new ruling goes beyond the policy suggested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which says the disclaimer is voluntary. Along with dictating what the labels have to look like, Ohio’s new rule is an infringement on commercial free speech, Goland said.
Effective. The emergency rule is in effect for 90 days while ODA completes the statutory rule-making process through the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review.
ODA legal assistant Bill Hopper said the process also calls for formal public hearing to give stakeholders an opportunity to comment on the proposed rule.
Other states. Director Boggs said this action adds Ohio to a list of a handful of states nationwide with rules or policy on dairy labeling.
Ohio’s action is toward an administrative rule, whereas Pennsylvania has only a policy on the matter.
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback at email@example.com. Both can be reached at 800-837-3419.)