A controversial decision by the state Department of Agriculture concerning dairy labeling is under review after facing strong public backlash.
Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff announced last month that the department would crack down on what it viewed as misleading labels on dairy products, including claims that milk was made from cows not treated with artificial [ie genetically engineered] growth hormones.
But early last week Gov. Ed Rendell's office initiated a review of the decision. Originally scheduled for Jan. 1, enforcement of the new rules has been delayed at least a month.
The controversy has focused on recombinant bovine growth hormone, also called recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), which is injected into cows to increase milk production by about 15 percent.
Under Mr. Wolff's directive, dairies selling milk in the state cannot declare on their labels that the milk is hormone-free or 'rBST-free.'
So far, 19 companies have been informed that their labels must change. Pennsylvania, home to 9,000 dairy farms, is the fourth-largest dairy-producing state in the country.
Chuck Ardo, press secretary for Mr. Rendell, said the governor's office heard complaints from elected representatives of rural districts and agriculture lobbyists, prompting the review.
Mr. Ardo said the review likely would take at least two or three months, further delaying the implementation of the labeling restrictions. The governor's office, which was not involved in the initial decision, will participate in reviewing the new rules 'both in the way they were promulgated and their effect,' Mr. Ardo said.
Consumer and public health groups also have been critical of the labeling restrictions.
'This violates the fundamental rights of consumers to know what's in their milk,' said Kevin Golden, staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety, a non-profit organization that advocates sustainable agriculture and food safety.
'We wouldn't be surprised if Pennsylvania turns around and takes away this action. ... If [Mr. Rendell] doesn't, they are going to see lawsuits.'
The Department of Agriculture acted after Mr. Wolff, who owns a dairy farm in Columbia County, formed the Food Labeling Advisory Committee, which had its only meeting Oct. 5. The 22-member committee, composed of consumer advocates, dairy producers, academics and others, examined dairy labels and recommended that certain types be banned.
Criticism of the decision was swift and harsh, and targeted primarily at rBST, the hormone produced by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co.
Though there is no reliable test to show the hormone is present in milk -- and 'rBST-free' labels are required by the FDA to acknowledge that there is no quantifiable difference in the quality or safety of the product -- many consumers choose to eschew rBST.
It was approved by the FDA in 1994, but many countries, including Canada, Japan, Australia and the European Union, have not approved the use of rBST because of cattle health concerns. Also, some studies have shown a correlation between certain types of cancer in humans and elevated levels of insulin growth factor, which is present in rBST-fueled milk.
Pennsylvania is the first state to restrict labeling in this way, and the decision came just months after the Federal Trade Commission refused a request by Monsanto to ban such labels.
The Department of Agriculture insists that rBST-free claims are misleading because they are not verifiable, unlike 'organic,' a designation subject to third-party review. Under the current system, milk distributors get farmers to sign a pledge not to use rBST.
Critics argue that the Department of Agriculture is coercing consumers into purchasing something they want to avoid.
'There was some level of surprise,' Chris Ryder, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said of the opposition to the state's new labeling restrictions. 'We weren't anticipating quite this response.'
Daniel Malloy can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1731.