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'Hormone-free' milk spurs labeling debate

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"For marketers and processors this is a way to present 'quasi-organic' or 'organic lite' products and extract a premium from consumers," says Chris Galen, a spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Washington, which represents conventional dairy marketing cooperatives. The rBGH-free label used to offer a competitive edge; now it merely serves to keep marketers up with the times. "It's the old joke about why did the chicken cross the road? Because it can," Mr. Galen says.

Sales of milk labeled "artificial hormone-free" do not appear to be affecting the organic market, says Eric Newman, a representative at Organic Valley, a cooperative that sells milk under the Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm labels. But many in the dairy industry see Wal-Mart's recent decision to sell rBGH-free milk as a bellwether. "It'll probably put the death knell to synthetic growth hormone," Mr. Newman says.

Despite Wal-Mart's an­nouncement, sales of Pos­ilac remain strong, says a spokeswoman for Monsanto.

What also remains strong is state-level debate over labeling, which ap­­pears to be reaching a peak. Pennsylvania, the fifth-largest dairy state, essentially banned labeling claims in October 2007, but rescinded the ban after considerable consumer backlash. Ohio, Missouri, Kansas, Indiana, and Michigan all have pending legislation or rule changes that would limit labeling claims about hormones.

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