MILKING LABELS FOR ALL THEY'RE WORTH

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The debate over labeling milk products made a big splash in February when Monsanto Co. got the OK to market recombinant bovine growth hormone. Today, four states have approved special rBGH-free labels, but evidence is still spotty on whether consumers will respond.

"It's much more of a farmer driven issue than a consumer driven issue," said Jerry Dryer, owner of the Jerry Dryer Group consultancy, Chicago, that works with 25 processors using rBGH to stimulate milk production. "My clients have really not seen a blip on the screen at all ... and I have a feeling it's become a non-issue in most of the country."

But officials in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maine and Vermont now are creating rules for or already allow labeling. Only Vermont is pursuing mandatory labeling.

"Our position is consumers have a right to know what's in their milk," said Eileen Elliott, Vermont assistant attorney general. "... An awful lot of people want to say it's not a big issue-but to consumers it's a big issue."

While surveys have found shoppers are aware of the issue, "intent to purchase milk has not changed," said a spokesman for the Milk Producers Federation, a group representing 40 dairy cooperatives accounting for nearly 70% of U.S. milk production.

U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show milk shipments increased in May for the first time since February. In May and June, fluid milk shipments increased 1.2% compared with the same period a year ago, after decreasing 0.1% and 0.2% in March and April, respectively.

Some see the labels as an obstacle for national marketers.

"You put your producers at a disadvantage when they are trying to sell in another state where a label cannot be accepted," said Mark Nestlen, manager of legislative and regulatory affairs for the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture.

Waterbury, Vt.-based Ben & Jerry's Homemade added rBGH-free labels to its frozen desserts in February, but stopped six weeks later.

"It became too difficult to manage faced with the possibility of having a label that may not be permissible in some states," said Alan Parker, special project director.

However, the company continues to use raw milk from rBGH-free cows and hopes to reinstate the labels.

After Vermont OK'd mandatory labeling in April, a suit challenging the law was filed in U.S. District Court, Burlington, Vt., by six trade groups, including the Milk Industry Foundation, the National Cheese Institute and the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

Vermont is proceeding with creating label rules, though the outcome of the lawsuit will determine if they'll be used. The law would require all milk products to carry labels indicating whether they are from treated cows.

Maine hopes to have rules in place this month, allowing milk products that don't contain rBGH to carry the Maine Quality trademark. But the labels won't refer to rBGH.

In Wisconsin, nearly all of the 375 milk distributors have put rBGH-free labels on their products since voluntary labels were approved in March (AA, April 18).

The general feeling is that producers haven't changed pricing for milk labeled rBGH-free.

In Minnesota, price differences for the product have ranged up to 10 cents to 15 cents a gallon more, said Bill Coleman, director of dairy and livestock division for the Department of Agriculture.

About 3% to 5% of milk in the state is sold as certified free of the synthetic hormone, he said.

Voluntary labeling began in May.

At the 64 Pick N' Save warehouse food stores and 86 other grocers in Wisconsin, shoppers have been able to buy rBGH-free Kemp's Select milk, produced by Marigold Foods, Minneapolis, since February. Because demand was high for the product, Pick N' Save added similar notices to its private-label brand in July.

Cheese marketer Cedar Grove Cheese in Plains, Wis., has been labeling its products as rBGH-free since early February, and sales have nearly doubled, said owner Bob Wills.

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