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Makers of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) have long opposed the use of labels identifying dairy products that were produced without the hormone. Now there is a new advocacy group, “closely tied to Monsanto,” that aims to defend the right of dairy farmers to use rBGH.

The thing that struck me in this article about the advocacy group is the following statement: “Afact [the pro-rBGH group] says it believes that such ‘absence’ labels can be misleading and imply that milk from cows treated with hormones is inferior.”

Of course, it is a given that they also oppose “presence” labels for the same reason. The argument is that there is no difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and those that are not.

But for many of us who want to avoid rBGH milk, that is hardly the point. For one, there are some pretty significant animal welfare issues at stake. And many people just don’t support the type of dairy farming that benefits the most from the use of rBGH. Therefore, rBGH labels should really be understood to be more like “fair trade” labels than nutrition labels.

There was actually a time when rBGH was openly debated in such terms in the United States. In the 1980s and early 90s, rBGH was treated like a farm policy issue, and Congress discussed the potential economic and social impacts of deregulating the drug (it was during a period of “dairy crisis”). But then it was determined that the final decision would be made by the FDA, not Congress, and people started seeing rBGH as a food safety issue.

But maybe now, with the growth in popularity of “fair trade” and “local” labels, there might be a way to redefine the reason for “absence” labels on milk. We should be prepared, because Monsanto is already working hard to keep us uninformed.

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