A ruling by the Sixth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals has overturned an existing Ohio ban on milk labels carrying a hormone-free claim. Now, dairy products not produced from cows raised on rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone) can say so on the package.

The decision comes after two years of legal battles in the case, which was brought to court by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), in conjunction with the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA). The Federal court ruled that the ban on such voluntary labels violated the First Amendment right of dairy producers. OTA CEO Christine Bushway said, "OTA believes consumers have a right to know how their food was produced, and organic farmers and manufacturers should be allowed to tell them. We are pleased the court agrees."

This ruling holds broader implications for the legal status of altered food and food marketing in general. rBGH is known to increase milk production in cows and has become integral to mass dairy production. A landmark U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruling in 1993 held that rBGH-based milk was not substantially different from unaltered milk. Until now, this meant that there was no legal basis for marketing milk as hormone-free in Ohio.
The court cited studies proving nutritional and other differences between treated and untreated milk, and based their overturning of the label ban on this evidence. This legal precedent could bear on other cases in the near future, including the marketing of genetically modified (GM) salmon. FDA has stated that if it approves the GM salmon, FDA would not require labeling that differentiates it from unaltered salmon.

Americans will largely welcome this decision, according to a Consumer Reports National Research Center poll which found 88% of people thought such “Hormone-Free” labels should be allowable. The United States differs from other countries worldwide, including Japan, Canada, Australia and the entire European Union, which have prohibited the use of synthetic growth hormone in dairy farming.

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, December 2010 (online 10/27/2010)