The Food and Drug Administration last week issued guidelines on how retailers and food processors can label milk and milk products they claim are free of the genetically engineered growth hormone BST.
The guidelines, published in the Federal Register, were issued in the midst of growing controversy among retailers about how to handle the consumer-sensitive issue of milk containing the synthetic hormone, which can be legally marketed as of this month. Retailers have enacted widely different strategies for dealing with the issue, ranging from touting milk as free of the supplemental hormone to simply reassuring consumers about the safety of the milk supply.
FDA issued labeling guidelines last week to prevent unfair competition after some processors and retailers had begun aggressively claiming their products were free of supplemental BST.
According to the guidelines, labels claiming that milk is not produced from hormone-injected cows should be accompanied by a statement that no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from treated and nontreated cows.
The guidelines also spell out the documentation necessary to contend that milk is free of supplemental BST.
The synthetic hormone's full name is recombinant bovine somatotropin, and is referred to as either BST, RBST or BGH (bovine growth hormone). Manufactured by Monsanto Co. under the name Prosilac, it hit the market
early this month accompanied by a flurry of attention in the national media and denouncements from some activist groups.
FDA approved use of the supplemental hormone on dairy cattle last fall, but Congress put a 90-day moratorium on its sale. Now the product, said to increase cows' milk production by as much as 10%, can be used legally. Since cows' milk contains some of BST naturally, there is no test that proves milk has come from a cow treated with the synthetic hormone.
FDA, by requiring labels to assure consumers that supplemental BST doesn't change the milk product, said it is trying to put the situation in context.
"FDA is concerned that the term 'RBST-free' may imply a compositional difference between milk from treated and untreated cows rather than in the way it is produced," the agency said. "Proper context could also be achieved by conveying the firm's reasons [other than safety or quality] for choosing not to use milk from cows treated with RBST, as long as the label is truthful and nonmisleading," the agency said.
The guidelines, which FDA says will be monitored at the state level, apply to posters and handouts, as well as product labels and anything else that carries a supplemental-BST-free message.
FDA issued its label rules as supermarkets had begun taking vastly different approaches to the BST controversy. Safeway, Oakland, Calif., was assuring customers in all its divisions that its private-label milk would not contain supplemental BST. On the other end of the spectrum, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., was making a point of not guaranteeing its milk will be free of the synthetic hormone.
And in an in-between stance, Kroger Co., Cincinnati, announced it was telling suppliers it prefers they not accept milk from farms treating cows with BST.
Other retailers were taking a wait-and-see attitude, but all said they viewed the use of synthetic BST as a consumer issue, not a health or safety issue. They said they had confidence in FDA's review of the product and its subsequent approval of it.
The degree to which consumers accept use of this synthetic hormone may offer some indication of how future effects of biotechnology will be received, one retailer said. "Consumer acceptance at this stage is very important to the biotech companies making major investments for future payback, and to consumers who will ultimately have more and safer products," said Wegmans' Mary Ellen Burris, director of consumer affairs, in a column in the 47-unit chain's circular last month. Safeway was promising customers milk that's free of supplemental BST to prevent a decline in sales. Brian Dowling, spokesman for Safeway, said, "We're not accepting milk right now that has supplemental BST for our private label. We're relying on contracts we have with our suppliers and on our long-term relationships with them," Dowling said. He added that Safeway has a "system in place that requires suppliers to give us 90 days notice of any change in raw materials."
Even with its no-supplemental-BST stand, Safeway believes FDA and the scientific community have made it clear that BST is not a health issue, Dowling said.
Riser Foods, Bedford Heights, Ohio, which operates Rini-Rego Markets, can promise customers milk free of supplemental BST because it deals with just one milk supplier who has assured Riser it is not accepting milk from farms treating cows with BST, said Tina Milkovich, spokeswoman.
At Kroger, Paul Bernish, vice president of public affairs, told SN: "While we have informed our suppliers that we prefer they not accept milk with supplemental BST, we don't believe we have the legal right to ask them not to."
Wegmans, meanwhile, in promoting its view that the supplemental hormone poses no danger, posted an 18-inch by 24-inch board at its dairy cases stating that "we're supportive of biotechnology in general and that we don't believe use of supplemental BST is a food safety issue," said William Pool, manager of food safety and regulations.
Big Y Foods, Springfield, Mass., has posted a notice that says, "We're not currently doing business with milk suppliers who knowingly obtain milk treated with synthetic BST," said Claire D'Amour, vice president of corporate affairs for the 30-unit chain.
Harris Teeter, Charlotte, N.C., is telling customers it neither approves nor disapproves of supplemental BST in milk, said Ed Cook, spokesman.
Customers at the Miami division of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores are simply being told that the chain "only purchases milk that's FDA- and USDA-approved," a source said.