Absence Labeling and the consumer’s right to know

Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is a protein hormone produced in the pituitary glands of cattle that can also be synthetically produced and then administered to cows in order to stimulate increased milk production. The use of rBST is highly controversial for several reasons, running the gamut from “milk produced from rBST cows may increase health risks to the consumer” to “cows injected with rBST lead suffer from a variety of health problems that can be construed as animal abuse”.

I don’t wish to get into the details of all the issues in this post, as they’re easily found elsewhere. The important thing to note here is that due to all of the ethical and health questions surrounding the use of this hormone, many people have decided that they do not wish to purchase milk that comes from companies that use rBST. So much so, that many dairies have found it was in their best interest to put “rBST-Free” (or other similar working) upon their milk cartons. This practice has been termed “Absence Labeling”

Enter Monsanto, the producer and seller of rBST, selling it under the trade name Posilac. In recent years, they have brought suit against various dairies who use the “rBST-Free” verbiage. Their argument is that absence label is detrimental to the reputation of their product, as it infers that milk produced by rBST injected cows is unhealthy to the consumer – sort of a “slander by inference”. When this tactic didn’t work, they decided to lobby governments directly, both Federal and State. Recently in my home state of Pennsylvania, the State Department of Agriculture nearly required that absence labeling was to be curtailed in regard to rBST, and it was only due to a tremendous public outcry that this decision was reversed. Similar battles are looming in Indiana, Ohio, and New Jersey.

(Side note: For a very kick-ass take down on how Monsanto heavily influenced the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, I suggest you read this post over at Unbossed).

It should shock no one to figure out where I stand on this. But let’s look at the bigger picture here, because this debate is more than rBST and how dairies label milk. As Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y noted in the CNNMoney piece, we use absence labeling all. the. time. How many labels out there state “No artificial flavors”, “No artificial coloring”, “No fat” or “No sugar”? Absence labeling is so ubiquitous that it’s a standard practice, and if it’s anything BUT rBST, we probably don’t even notice it.

So why is Monsanto pursuing this? Because if they win, it’s a financial windfall. Using whatever state’s precedent, it would be easy to legislatively curtail “genetically modified crop free” or “milk from uncloned animal” labels from the marketplace. The competition that Monsanto sees from Organic producers of food would effectively be handicapped from distinguishing their products from the likes Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, or ConAgra.

Keep an eye out this year for these debates. If they take place in your state, contact your representative or senator and let them know how you feel. These tactics by Monsanto are a direct shot at anyone who wants to sell or buy organic or sustainable or even ethically produced foodstuffs.