Last month I wrote about the milk labeling debate here in Ohio. If comments measure interest, no one cares. So let’s try again.
As the milk debate returned to the headlines today, I began to see that this “transparency” thing isn’t a simple concept. In fact, the debate over milk labels presents an ethical dilemma for PR practitioners on both sides of the issue — though I doubt either side is seeing it clearly.
The debate began last month with a proposal to prohibit milk suppliers from labeling their products as “rBGH free.” If you aren’t up on agri-biz issues, “recombinant bovine growth hormone.” aka, Prosilac, is a chemical that boosts the production of dairy cows by as much as 20%. That means higher profits for farmers and lower milk prices for consumers. On the surface, it’s a classic win-win.
Those who defend rBGH insist that milk from rBGH cows is no different than milk from untreated cows. They say that rBGH poses NO health risk, and the FDA supports this claim. Those who support use of rBGH also say that labeling milk as “rBGH free” is misleading, since it implies that milk from rBGH cows is unsafe, a claim not supported by evidence. That said, rBGH milk is banned in Canada and in Europe. Do they know something we don’t, or are they simply more cautious about what they eat?
The Ohio Farm Bureau and Monsanto have a big stake in this debate. And in my state, big money and lobbyists usually prevail. But forces supporting “rGBH free” labeling have their own champion in Kroger. The mega retailer based in Cincinnati has been telling milk producers to stop using rBGH or to peddle their milk elsewhere.
Those who support “rGBH free” labeling say it’s all about transparency, and that’s a tough point to argue if you value open discussion with stakeholders and the symmetrical model of public relations. But this issue involves agri-science that few of us understand or have time to research. It’s complicated.
Is rBGH really a threat, or is it being cast as another toxic boogie man? Has the trend toward “green” and “organic” marketing gone too far? Monsanto and the Farm Bureau apparently think so, and they have made a counter proposal:
Monsanto and the Ohio Farm Bureau have lobbied in Ohio to ensure ”rbST-free” milk labels also contain a disclaimer in the same size and color typeface stating the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has found no significant difference between milk from cows injected or not injected with the artificial hormone. (Akron Beacon Journal, 3/13/08)
The disclaimer, say its opponents, will render the “rBGH free” message inert. But since we have no evidence to show that rBGH poses a threat to health, per the FDA, does transparency not dictate that we give that message equal billing?
If we have a right to know when milk comes from rGBH cows, does it not follow that we have a right to know what threat rBGH poses? Or is “rBGH free” just marketing fluff? If you step back from the debate about the width of a cow pie you’ll see the dilemma — regardless of how you feel about big chemical companies and corporate agriculture.
It’s awfully easy to whip up a public frenzy over complex issues that may or may not threaten us. So approach them with care, and apply rational thinking.
We’ll find the answer to this dilemma not at the extremes, but somewhere in the middle. As a longtime defender of the symmetrical model of PR, I believe in empowered customers and balanced dialog (even though I believe most consumers to be pretty clueless). But I’d rather they be confused by a message than never be exposed to it.
Were I voting on this issue, I’d endorse “rGBH free” labels, but I would also endorse the disclaimer that rGBH has not been show to cause harm to humans. That’s the whole story. That’s the transparent story. At least for now.
Once rBGH labeling is in place, consumers can decide if they want to pay the higher price for hormone-free milk, just as they do with organic produce or free-range chicken.
I’d love to be sitting at management’s table at Monsanto, at the Farm Bureau or at Kroger. I’d love to hear what the PR professionals are advocating and how often “transparency” enters the discussion. But in the end, it’s not the PR people who will make the decision. It will ultimately be the marketplace.