Friday, January 18, 2008

This just in: First Amendment still applies to PA farmers

Here's an item that may or may not have caught your attention. It didn't seem to get all that much press outside of the agricultural community, despite the significant impact it would have had on dairy farmers' free speech rights.

In October, Dept. of Agriculture Sec. Dennis Wolff announced that Pennsylvania dairy farmers who do not inject their cows with artificial growth hormones, often referred to as rBST, would no longer be able to point out that fact to their customers on their product labels. (The synthetic hormones are said to boost milk production by about 10 percent, and were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1994. They are banned in Canada and Europe.)

Referred to as "absence labeling," Pennsylvania was the first state in the country to ban the practice. In his most sincerely paternalistic way, Wolff argued that there's no difference between milk from cows injected with rBST and those that aren't, so all those fancy big words just confuse customers.

See, Wolff explained, he's just looking out for you and me. He doesn't want us moms trying to choose milk for our children to get all muddle-headed with choices in the grocery aisles.

Following outcry from small farmers and consumer rights' activists, yesterday, Gov. Ed Rendell's office announced that the Dept. of Agriculture was revoking its proposed ban, amid the creation of new labeling standards.

The Philadelphia Inquirer has the update. It's not exactly a victory for free-speech rights, since this should have never been an issue in the first place.

The article says
Though labels are once again permitted to mention that hormones were not used, the standards require a disclaimer stating there is no difference in milk from cows injected with hormones and milk from cows that are not injected. Such disclaimers already are printed on many milk cartons.

Most scientists agree that it is almost impossible to detect the artificial hormone in milk. But there are other related issues that concern customers. Users of rBST are warned that the drug increases incidents of mastitis. Cows with mastitis must be treated with antibiotics. And here's a nice tidbit, mastitis also increases the amount of puss in your milk. (Don't know about you, but that fact alone is reason enough for me to support rBST-free labels.)

One doesn't have to go back very far to find Monsanto's tentacles intertwined in the process. The agri-business chemical giant and maker of Agent Orange is also the maker of rBST, marketed under the name Posilac.
For the past year, Monsanto has been lobbying state farming organizations to support labeling bans. And for good reason, according to this absolutely terrific report by Susan Erem for the Voice of Central Pennsylvania, Monsanto earns $64,000 per day just in Pennsylvania solely from the sale of Posilac.

The article is long, but it's the best comprehensive account of the issue that I've seen written anywhere. If you're interested in this issue, I encourage you to read it.

Pennsylvania is the fourth largest state producer of milk in the country. But the fight isn't yet over. Monsanto has been bullying organic dairy farmers for years over the labeling issue. It appealed its case to the FDA, but was rejected. Other states, such as Ohio, New Jersey and Michigan, are now mulling over similar bans.

Quite simply, as long as the claims are not fraudulent, farmers who reject using rBST should be free to say what they want on their labels. And here's an idea: Farmers who proudly use rBST are free to point out that fact on their labels too. That way, rather than allowing government to silence discourse, they can simply battle it out in the free market.

Lauri in York



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a "crunchy liberal" who is into organic foods. Personally, if the hormons are undetectable, I'm happy to have more milk at cheeper prices.

However, there are reasons for making a choice other than the composition and safety of the milk. Some people just don't like the way animals are treated on farms, and if there are farmers who want to market to them, then they should be allowed to label their products accordingly.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny are we're supposed to have "truth in labeling" laws.

I guess it underscores how fickle "truth" can be. Monsanto's truth carries more money behind it than the farmers' truth, I guess.

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most people just want cheap, cheap, cheap, from China, at the store, everywhere.
We dairy farmed for 15 years and never used BST because 1) it costs a fortune and 2) the extra production increased your milk check but it also adds to your feed and water costs as well as the longevity of your cows life (more stress = shorter life).
Yet, organic farming can be a bit of a sham as well. Although most farmers care well for their livestock (cows aren't cheap I assure you) our problem going organic was, if your cow gets an infection, what do you use? There are not yet good organic alternatives to antibiotics, so sometimes when an "organic" cow gets ill, she is done for.
Alan- When you say "I'm happy to have more milk at cheeper prices" you are -likely w/out knowing it- supporting the facorty farm mentality, as well as the Walmart mentality and the made in China for a penny and made like crap & w/ lead paint mentality.
Millions of family farms (including ours) ave closed shop in the last 20 years because consumers want cheap milk. Not a good product produced by a family. But cheaper- regardless of livestock health, hormones, antibiotics, packaging, labeling...
Families can no longer compete w/ super farms and go under. Some families resort to super farms to stay afloat. Yet when a "hog factory" comes to town these same people drinking cheap milk and buying pork at Walmart are their to boycot it on behalf of the poor little farm piggies.
Forget cheap. If you want quality and to support the average Joe, buy locally, -butcher, farmer, farmers market- and pay a fair wage to the producers.
I won't even get into government regulation of milk prices that the farmers have no control over or the huge sum (hundreds and hundreds) automatically deducted from dairy farmers paychecks to pay for the governments "dairy" campaign...

4:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And, by the way, poor quality milk (the pussy kind) goes for cheese and dried milk products. Yummy!
BUT farmers get paid more for cleaner, high quailit milk, so any farmer w/ a bit of skill cares for their cows well to make a buck (longer life, better milk, more money...)

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RE: Alan- When you say "I'm happy to have more milk at cheaper prices" you are -likely w/out knowing it- supporting the factory farm mentality.

You are right. I'm pretty oblivious to these issues and simply look at the price when I buy "staples" like milk.

One good thing about this ruling is that, through labeling, some farmers may be able to differentiate their products from the generic "factory farm" stuff and educate consumers at the same time.

That is why I tend to support free speech even when it is commercial in nature. Of course, the First Amendment has much more limited application to commercial speech, as opposed to political speech. And I don't want fraudulent claims to be protected. But in general I think we are all better off when we are free to speak and free to listen, even when speaking involves selling and listening leads to buying.

6:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

California has some of the largest dairy farms in the country, where 2000, 3000 even 7000 cows are housed and milked factory, or rather assembly line, style.
Yet their "Happy Cows" campaign has been more successful than the Got Milk campaign.
Labeling is good, and milk labeling will likely be regulated by the government (like organic dairys are). But some labeling just doesn't mean squat. I know of folks in Lancaster County who market their produce as organic to get more bang for their buck but they don't produce organic produce. It's unfair to those who do grow organic but you cannot sensor everyone.
Unfortunately, too few Americans understand agriculture, where their food comes from, who and how it is produced, anything. They seem to think it just appears at the market in cardboard and styrofoam. And they assume it's "safe," too. But much of our food comes from other countries where we have no idea if what chemicals they are using, labor practices, etc.
Of course the dairy industry (as farmers get around the same price per pound of milk as they did in the 1970's) used a large pool of Mexican immigrants to get the job done. They work hard, don't ask for benefits and are happy to be housed in one home for the entire group. When one returns to Mexico another shows up and the Mexican "boss" keeps it all working.

9:21 AM  

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