PORTLAND, Maine - Oakhurst Dairy owner Stanley Bennett welcomed the news that Monsanto was divesting itself of its controversial dairy hormone business, after taking on the agribusiness giant in an expensive David-and-Goliath legal battle five years ago."We feel somewhat vindicated, given our position," Bennett said. "I'd like to think that, in some small part, we played a role in that decision."
The lawsuit centered on Oakhurst Dairy's label, which read: "Our Farmers' Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones Used."
Monsanto, the St. Louis-based biotechnology company known primarily for its genetically engineered seeds, sued Oakhurst, alleging the label misled consumers into thinking there's something wrong with milk from cows treated with the hormone.
After months of talks, the dairy kept the label, but added a disclaimer: "FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones."
Oakhurst was the first dairy in the nation to label its milk as hormone-free, something that is increasingly common. In the past year, Starbucks announced it would start using only hormone-free milk, and Wal-Mart announced its house brand of milk would be hormone-free.
At the time of the lawsuit, Bennett said he worried that people would think Oakhurst had caved in. That hasn't been the case.
"Universally, people have congratulated us that we stuck by our guns, because we still have the label," he said.
Although Monsanto settled with Oakhurst five years ago, the labeling issue has never gone away for the company. Most recently, several state legislatures have taken up the issue. All have essentially repeated the same argument as in the Oakhurst case, with Monsanto arguing for a disclaimer on labels for hormone-free milk.
"Some consumers prefer to purchase milk from cows that have not been treated with (growth hormone). Monsanto respects this choice, but we want to make sure that consumers have all of the information they need to make this decision," the company said in an e-mail statement.
The statement describes milk processors as using the labeling issue "to profit from unfounded fears."
Organic dairy farmer Spencer Aitel said the Oakhurst lawsuit was a major victory for consumers.
"Monsanto is really used to throwing their muscle around, and for Stan Bennett to choose to fight them, that was an awesome thing," said Aitel, who owns Two Loons Farm in South China with his wife, Paige Tyson. "Stan listened to the consumers, and the consumer here has managed to change the industry, and you don't often get that chance."
Cheryl Beyeler, director of the Maine Dairy and Nutrition Council, agreed the lawsuit was a turning point.
"There wasn't a lot of consumer knowledge about (the growth hormone). I think initially it was a very smart marketing technique," she said.
With food recalls and other scares, the issue is becoming more important to consumers.
"They don't like the idea that things are being put into our food supply that they don't know about or have control over," Beyeler said.
The growth hormone, a synthetic version of a natural substance, can boost milk production by 5 percent to 15 percent. Despite the FDA's position that there is no difference in the milk, critics argue that the hormones increase stress for the animals.
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Maine's three major dairies, Oakhurst, Hood and Garelick Farms, all require that their farmers not use hormones, and they pay the farmers a premium for the milk.
"People want to know where their food is coming from, and more than that, they want to know how far away it was grown, who grew it and how they can support those farmers," said Heather Spaulding, associate director of Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.
"Labeling has always been important to our constituent base," Spaulding said. "(Consumers) want to be reassured that they know where their food is coming from and that the label means something, that there is integrity in what is on the label."
At the time, the lawsuit was very difficult, Bennett acknowledged.
"It did take our attention away from the day-to-day business, and it was very expensive," he said. "But it raised our profile, and it made us think about how we really do have not just a marketing interest but an obligation to do what's best for dairy consumers."
In the years since, many dairies have gone "hormone-free." In fact, Bennett says Oakhurst has largely lost its competitive advantage.
"In a sense, we've become a victim of our own success," Bennett said. "We've lost that hook for our consumers."
Today, the company describes its label as "America's first farmers' pledge."
The Maine Dairy Industry Association doesn't have an official position on use of the growth hormone, because it represents farmers on both sides of the issue, said director Julie Marie Bickford.
"A lot of this issue is about marketing and perception," she said. "It's been a positive thing because it promoted a Maine product, but it took away from Maine farmers a production tool."
Some farmers are still upset about that.
"It's sort of the principle of the thing," Bickford said. "We're told to get more efficient and use modern technology, and this was an example of that. The people who used it really loved it. Then they were told they couldn't do it. I have some farmers who are still very upset about it. And some farmers who are resigned to it - they grumbled, but they did it."
Aitel agreed that the dairy community is split over the issue, describing it as an "industrywide identity crisis."
"There are a lot of farmers who don't like the idea that milk can be set apart from other milk," he said. "It was important that Stan Bennett and the family stood up for the idea that there is a difference in producing milk."
Bennett said that despite the lawsuit being the biggest controversy to ever hit the dairy, it isn't something he dwells on.
"It has come and gone, and we deal with the here and now," Bennett said.
© 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers