Biotechnology giant Monsanto Co. has sued Oakhurst Dairy of Portland, saying Oakhurst's claim that its milk doesn't contain any artificial growth hormones is essentially misleading.
Monsanto, based in Missouri, claims there is no scientific proof that the milk is any different from that produced by cows that have been treated with the hormones.
"We believe Oakhurst labels deceive consumers; they're marketing a perception that one milk product is safer or of higher quality than other milk," said Jennifer Garrett, director of technical services for Monsanto's dairy business. "Numerous scientific and regulatory reviews throughout the world demonstrate that that's unfounded. The milk is the same, and the amount of protein, fats, nutrients, etc., are all the same."
The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Boston, demands that Oakhurst stop advertising that it doesn't use milk from hormone-treated cows. It also asks that the dairy stop putting labels reading "Our Farmers' Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones" on its milk jugs.
This is the first such suit in a decade filed by Monsanto. But it's related to the global debate about genetically engineered foods. Most of Europe has banned the import or production of what opponents call "Frankenfoods." Biotechnology researchers and corporations say that scientific advances boost productivity to levels that could help ease global hunger.
Although the Food and Drug Administration approved the bovine growth hormone, or BGH, Canada and the European Union have banned it. Some organizations and consumers who oppose use of artificial growth hormones claim they are linked to breast cancer and premature puberty in children.
Monsanto is the nation's largest producer of the synthetically produced hormone, which enhances milk production. Five years ago, Oakhurst began to make sure all of its milk comes from farms that pledge in writing every six months with a notarized affidavit that they won't use the hormones on their herds, said Stanley T. Bennett II, president of the dairy.
"Consumers have let us know since the advent of these artificial growth hormones that they don't want to have to worry about (them). If consumers tell us they don't want anything added to the milk, or if they have a concern about something, we're going to respond to them as a company," said Bennett.
"We have said from the beginning that we make no claims to understand the science involved with artificial growth hormones," he said. "We're in the business of marketing milk, not Monsanto's drugs."
The labeling is a market distinguisher for Oakhurst, said Bennett, and is so important to the dairy that it pays a premium of 20 cents on every 100 pounds of milk for the notarized guarantee. That would amount to $500,000 in 2002, when Oakhurst processed 250 million pounds of milk.
Lee Quarles, a spokesman for the Missouri company, said the suit was filed because Monsanto believes Oakhurst's ads and labels are deceptive and also disparaged Monsanto's products with the inference that milk from untreated cows was better than milk from hormone-treated cows. Oakhurst was also stepping up its advertising and marketing efforts in recent months, leading to the lawsuit, said Quarles.
"If in fact they are attempting to stop us from using our labeling, I think it strikes me as very odd that somebody could conceivably prohibit a company from telling people what's not in their product," said Bennett. "On principle, it's also a question of free speech. The world seems a little bit discombobulated when somebody attempts to prohibit you from trying to do the right thing."
According to Monsanto's Garrett, an independent market study conducted in Massachusetts shopping malls showed that more than two-thirds of the 300 people surveyed thought that milk with the Oakhurst labels was healthier to drink than milk without such labels. Sixty percent of those surveyed thought Oakhurst milk was safer to drink, Garrett said.
Bennett said his small dairy, which employs 240 and had $85 million in sales last year, has been ignored by Monsanto until recently. He speculated that the attention may come because other, larger milk producers are considering taking similar anti-hormone steps in their marketing campaigns.
In 2002, Monsanto had net sales of $4.7 billion, net losses of $1.7 billion and working assets of $8.9 billion.
Quarles said Monsanto has not filed similar lawsuits against other dairies, but wouldn't say whether more were planned. Monsanto filed similar suits against two dairies in Illinois about 10 years ago, said Quarles, and both were settled out of court under confidential terms.
The suit against Oakhurst claims unfair competition, unfair business practices and interference with advantageous business relationships. According to the suit, the business relationships between Monsanto and dairy producers who use the artificial growth hormone have suffered because the farmers will stop using the treatments. Garrett wouldn't say whether any of Monsanto's customers have stopped the treatments because of Oakhurst's marketing practices.
This isn't the first time Monsanto has had issues with dairy product labeling in Maine. Earlier this year, Attorney General Steven Rowe rejected a request by the company that Maine abandon its Quality Trademark Seal program that indicates when milk is free of artificial growth hormones.
Monsanto argued that the seal, adopted in 1994, misleads consumers into thinking that hormone-free milk is superior to milk using an artificial growth hormone. Both Oakhurst and H.P. Hood dairies use the seal to promote their products.
Industry experts suggested that although the seal has been used for nearly 10 years by Oakhurst, Monsanto objected now because other dairies are joining the program.
Attorneys arguing that the seal program be stopped said Maine lacks an adequate system to monitor affidavits it accepts from farmers who pledge not to use the artificial hormone.
In addition, they said, the FDA has recommended that any label that says the product is free of artificial hormones should appear in the proper context with accompanying information, such as "no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from (hormone)-treated and non-(hormone)-treated cows."
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