Late last week, amid the growing controversy over milk mislabeling, Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell stepped in and overrode the Department of Agriculture's effort to clamp down on unverifiable milk label claims – specifically about recombinant bovine somatotropin, the artificial growth hormone better known as rBST. As a result, New Jersey and other states, considering similar rules, have shoved the idea to the back burner.
Rendell essentially pardoned the 16 milk processors from five states who initially were given a January 1 deadline to take unverifiable claims off their labels. Milk labels informing consumers that it was produced without rBST or artificial growth hormones can continue to be used.
The move, according to the governor, will standardize labeling about artificial growth hormones given to dairy cows to bring labels in line with other states, like Vermont. Pennsylvania's regulations will continue to follow the 1994 Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) milk labeling guidelines.
"The public has a right to complete information about how the milk they buy is produced," noted Rendell. "Consumers can have confidence that the claims made by labels are accurate, and for the first time used in a uniform manner."
But in a Jan. 17 letter to the 16 fluid milk processors, Food Safety Bureau Director William Chirdon, warned that while the action against them was withdrawn, "such labels are not approved." The processors have until March 1 to gain approval.
New labeling standards
The new milk labeling standards about what is and isn't permitted is almost three pages long. But here are a few key elements:
• Processors intending to use labels stating no rBST or artificial growth hormones will be required to certify that the milk wasn't produced with rBST. They must have a verifiable method to back up that claim.
• No label may contain references such as "No hormones", "Hormone free", "No BST", BST Free" which implies that no natural or synthetic bovine somatotropins were in the product.
• Any label claim regarding "No rBST", "rBST Free", or "Free of rBST" must be accompanied by a disclaimer that "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows.
• Milk meeting USDA organic certification standards is exempted from required disclaimer statements.
The complete milk labeling standards on Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture's Web site: www.agriculture.state.pa.us. Click on Food Labeling under the "What's New" category.
Determination of accountability still undefined
"If consumers prefer certain farming practices, such as not using rBST, there needs to be accountability on the part of the milk processor to show that the consumer is getting what they are paying for," notes Ag Secretary Dennis Wolff.
Just how that will be determined and how it will impact milk producers still hasn't been confirmed. American Agriculturist awaits clarification from Food Safety Bureau Director Chirdon.