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ODA's New Milking Labeling Balances Public's Right To Know with Free Speech

After months of study by the state and after input from various stakeholders, the Ohio Department of Agriculture has developed new rules governing the labeling of dairy products. The agriculture director says the new regulations balance a business's right of free speech with the public's right to know.

Ohio's 1,200 dairies produced about 5 billion pounds of milk last year but that amount will probably decrease in 2008. Large chain stores such as Kroger are refusing to buy milk from cows treated with rBST, a synthetic protein that almost doubles a cow's milk production. On February 7th, the agriculture department ruled that producers who don't use the Monsanto-manufactured milk stimulant have the right to label their milk as r-B-S-T free. Monsanto had fought to keep such labeling off milk cartons, but state director of agriculture Robert Boggs says a labeling advisory committee felt otherwise. , "They all said the consumer should have all the information," Bogggs said, "that the information shouldn't be filtered, that it shouldn't be half complete, shouldn't be buried away in small print on the back of the label, but that both statements should be right out there together so that the consumer could read them side by side so they can get the full information they need to make a decision."

The new regulations require that if a producer chooses to market his milk with an rBST free label, it must also add an FDA disclaimer that says there's no significant difference between rBST supplemented and non-rBST supplemented milk. Director Boggs believes there might be as much as a 15 percent drop in milk production if producers stop using rBST.

"We anticipate that there will be a ten to 15 percent reduction in dairy production in Ohio," Boggs says, "not necessarily as a result of the label, but because processors are demanding that producers sign affidavits guaranteeing that the milk they produce will not come from cows treated with rBST."

There is no test for the presence of rBST, so producers will be asked to sign affidavits saying they don't use it.

Union County farmer and dairyman Rob Bouic stopped using the synthetic protein when the market for his rBST produced milk dried up. He says he won't be buying more dairy cows that can cost around $2,00 a piece, to make up for the milk he used to get with fewer cows injected with rBST.

"I am going to concentrate more heavily on my grain operation and my milk volume and my cow numbers will be down dramatically during this year," Bouic says. "No I'm not going out and buy expensive replacement cattle."

The Ohio Department of Agriculture will look for supporting documentation that shows cattle are rBST free. According to Director Boggs, it's the best that regulators can do.

"Is it a fool proof test? No it's not," Boggs says. "But under the available situation it was the best that we could do to balance out the need for consumers to have information about their milk product and also to balance out the constitutional right of speech that businesses have in Ohio."

Governor Ted Strickland has issued an executive order that prohibits false and misleading dairy labeling for the next 90 days. In the meantime, the new ODA labeling regulations will go before a public hearing at the agriculture department and before another at the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review.