The Kroger Co. and chemical giant Monsanto are in a state-by-state spat over how milk should be labeled in stores.
Kroger wants to tell consumers in more than 3,200 groceries and convenience stores through a product label that the milk produced and sold by Kroger dairy plants is free of a hormone produced by Monsanto called Posilac or rBST.
The substance, injected into cows, can boost milk production by 10 pounds per day.
Monsanto opposes those labels and claims they are disparaging to a legal and appropriate additive. It has fought labeling plans in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Utah - with more states likely to become battlegrounds - and insists that if Kroger is permitted to put the information on a label, Monsanto will have no way to rebut implications that the bovine supplement is unsafe.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved its use in the United States, said Monsanto spokesperson Lori Hoag, who acknowledged that the product is not registered for use in Canada.
'There is no difference in the milk,' said Hoag. 'There is absolutely no difference in the milk.'
The retail battle pits the rights of consumers to know what's in a product against a powerful player in the agriculture industry, Monsanto, which is based in St. Louis. The FDA approved used of the supplement in 1993.
The issue came to a head this month in Ohio. Why does Kroger need a label?
'No.1, rBST isn't there - isn't in the milk,' said Meghan Glynn, Kroger spokeswoman. 'And there's increasing customer interest in this issue. We are getting a lot of calls on this.'
The fight has already forced Kroger to change plans for millions of proposed milk labels after Gov. Ted Strickland on Feb. 7 issued an emergency order to prevent the Cincinnati-based retailer from using the label.
Kroger notified dairies last summer that by February 2008, it would not sell milk from cows that had been given rBST.
The retailer had proposed a two-part label: one line in the notification said that the milk came from cows that were not treated with artificial bovine growth hormone and in smaller print was an explanation that the FDA had found that the hormone rBST - also known as rBGH - was safe.
The smaller print became an issue of contention as Ohio regulators told Kroger it could not proceed with the label and had to make changes.
Ohio is not the first state where this issue has played out.
Pennsylvania banned the labels, known in the food industry as 'absence labels' on Jan.1, but that prohibition was later altered to allow milk to be labeled as from cows that were not treated with rBST.
Kroger has found a powerful ally in the International Dairy Food Association.
'Let's be clear about one thing: The reason why processors are marketing products with absence claims is simply because consumers are demanding it,' dairy foods association executive Jerry Slominski said.
'If you don't believe me, just ask parents who buy milk for their children if they prefer milk from cows that have not been treated with artificial hormones.'
In Ohio, where Kroger has 214 stores, the issue raises big questions for other national food producers that want to sell products in Ohio and label those dairy products as coming from cows not treated with the hormone, said Slominski.
'Ben and Jerry's is very concerned about rules like in Ohio,' Slominski said. 'It's part of their marketing strategy to produce ice cream that is not related to rBST. So companies have a seven-word claim and then an 18-word disclaimer behind it?
'That's putting more material to make Monsanto's case on the label. It's a problem.'
Both sides wait as regulators consider the issue.
After Strickland ordered that the absence label must contain a statement of FDA safety, the Ohio Department of Agriculture agreed to permit the emergency ruling that prohibits Kroger labeling to stand. In the meantime, with Kroger milk currently unlabeled, the department has asked the state's Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review to endorse its decision.
That hearing is scheduled for March 31.