A federal court yesterday struck down an Ohio ban on dairy products whose labels say they're made from milk that's free of hormones that increase cows' milk production.
What's that milk label say?
That means companies that want to say their products are "rbGH free" and "rbST free" and "artificial hormone free" are now free to do so.
But the bigger deal might be that the ruling challenges the FDA's 17-year-old finding that there's "no significant difference" between the milk of cows given growth hormone and those that aren't. Just that sort of distinction, or lack of it actually, is part of the ongoing debate about how to label genetically engineered salmon.
The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said there is a "compositional difference" between milk from cows given growth hormones and those without.
The court gave three reasons they're different:
- Increased levels of the hormone IGF-1;
- A period of milk with lower nutritional quality during each lactation; and
- Increased somatic cell counts (i.e. more pus in the milk).
But the FDA concluded in 1993 when it approved the growth hormone that the milk shows "no significant difference" in milk from untreated cows. The agency's rules prevent it from requiring labeling for foods purely on the production process, and so it has not required labeling for rbGH milk.
For the record, the FDA says it's OK with voluntary labels on hormone-free milk that say the milk is derived from cows not treated with rbGH and that say the agency has found no difference in the milk. But states are the deciders.
According to the food blog Civil Eats, lots of other states have already given the go-ahead for these milk labels. Ohio was the last holdout.
The battle may go beyond milk.
While genetically-engineered salmon is still awaiting approval, FDA documents released at the time of the meeting indicate it will conclude the same about salmon — it says the flesh of the GE salmon is not significantly different from ordinary farm raised Atlantic salmon, therefore, it would not need a label.
Such a label would be false and misleading, says AquaBounty, the company who makes the genetically-engineered salmon.
But if FDA approves the salmon, consumer groups say the ruling may help companies who want to label their salmon as non-genetically engineered.
"If we don't get mandatory labeling - everybody's going to want non GE labeling," says Dr. Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union.
A spokeswoman for the biotechnology trade association BIO says, however, that the milk issue and the salmon issue are completely different.
"There's no growth hormone added to the fish," she says. The fish are given DNA from an eel pout that allows the fish to produce their own hormone, and grow year-round, instead of just in the summer, she says.
Update: A spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture released a statement late Friday saying that it is pleased that the court upheld many aspects of the labeling rule and that officials are reviewing the decision.
"We cannot comment at this time on the future course of this litigation,” the spokeswoman said.