Milk-labeling debate reveals the cloudy nature of ‘transparency’

toxicmilk.jpgLast 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.

11 Responses to Milk-labeling debate reveals the cloudy nature of ‘transparency’

  1. Bryan Campbell says:

    The issue is a touchy one. Especially because the message is backed by Monsanto. Would the move for this equal “transparency” be there if not for their support? It’s an issue I’ve struggled with professionally many times. If the message would honestly be the same sans corporate support, then the message passes muster. Otherwise, you are violating PRSA ethics policy, in my opinion.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    Sorry I can’t agree with you on this, Bryan. The message has Monsanto’s backing because it’s in Monsanto’s best interest to see the disclaimer on the label. That’s no secret, and the debate is out in the open. No, the message would not be considered without Monsanto’s urging, but in this case I would argue that Monsanto brings balance to the issue. The FDA has found no difference in the milk products with rBGH or without. Consumers should not be misled to believe otherwise.

    Monsanto has as much right to be heard as the consumer groups. And one might argue that Monsanto has science on its side while the consumer groups have only emotion. But I don’t know enough about the research to make such a statement.

    I’m not a shill for the chemical industry, but fairness in this case dictates both messages be stated on the label. I don’t see “corporate support” as an issue at all, nor do I see any violation of PRSA’s ethics code. But if you want to flesh out that point, it might make for some fruitful discussion. Maybe I’m missing something.

    For the record, when “rBGH free” milk comes to my supermarket, I plan to buy it. Perhaps the underlying message in all this is a mistrust of the FDA. Given that it’s part of the current administration in Washington, that’s certainly understandable.

  3. Christina Klenotic says:

    Bill, just buy Horizon, Organic Valley or Stoneyfield Farm organic milk, which are now available in most mainstream supermarkets and are rBGH-free. I’m not that granola, but when it comes to milk and meat, I go organic. Those additives completely freak me out.

  4. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, C. But are you sure they sell such crazy stuff out here in Portage County? I mean, you can’t even find a Subaru dealer out here! I’m with you on the organic meat, but you know me: I go to the woods and gather my own. No hormones, no chemicals, and very little fat.

  5. Christina Klenotic says:

    Ah yes. The days of Sledzik hunting lore in the classroom.

    I don’t think I’ll be buying my own cow anytime soon.🙂

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Well, don’t expect me to shoot one for you.

  7. Bryan Campbell says:

    I can’t defend my position. Off the top of my head I thought it would violate the free flow of information clause (maintaining proper communications with elected officials), specifically the ambiguous “Preserve the integrity of the process of communication” section. But on going back to reread the entire Code, with your comments in mind, I will cede the point.

    It also makes me feel a little better about a current situation I am involved in currently…

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Bryan,

    I won’t ask you for any more on that “current situation,” but I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been uncomfortable at one point or another with the clients they were asked to represent. And let me tell you, I would NOT want the job of defending Monsanto and rGBH. But so far, science has not shown the hormone to be the toxic terror many seem to think that it is.

  9. Colin Morris says:

    Hate to distract from this healthy conversation, but the packaging implications of this whole debacle reminds me a bit of a viral video exploring how the iPod would be packaged if Microsoft had created it…

  10. JoJo says:

    Nexus One – Google attacks Apple iPhone That’s dead-on, humans — We are passing you hombres the all-or-nothing account on all nook and cranny of the NEXUS ONE. In case you’ve holding up under a rock, here’s the breakdown of the phone. The HTC-built device runs Android 2.1 atop a 1GHz Snapdragon CPU, a 3.7-inch, 480 x 800 display, has 512MB of ROM, 512MB of RAM, and a 4GB microSD card (expandable to 32GB). The phone is a T-Mobile device ( intending no 3G if you want to run through it to AT

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