01/02/2007 02:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Got Milk? Got Hormones? -- Exploiting Food Fear

Sales in the food industry grow at less than three percent a year. Why? The population is growing at about that pace and there is only so much food people can eat. But sales in the organic food industry are growing at a whopping 20-30 percent a year, as consumers learn more about additives and pesticides in food, and as the organic food industry has been able to tout the benefits of nature. But organic food products cost more than conventionally produced ones, mostly because their producers are smaller, the work is sometimes more labor-intensive, and the requirements for food certified as organic is high.

Enter the charlatans, folks who combine the concern about pesticides and additives with their own desire to grab hold of the profits available to those who can distinguish the food they produce from "ordinary" food. You've seen the labels for fat-free chocolate, calorie-free pound cake, sugar-free candy and other oxymoronic combinations. Another set of labels stretch the truth and tell only part of the story - labels for "hormone-free" milk. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has admonished milk producers to stop using misleading labels, there are complaints against milk producers in several states about misleading "hormone free" labels (which some are calling "organic lite" labels), and consumers are paying more money for milk that is neither organic nor "hormone free".

Here's why. Animals produce hormones. Whether milk production is enhanced by rBST, a synthetic version of the bovine hormone cows naturally produced, or not, it is not "hormone free". Organic milk, as opposed to so-called hormone free milk, is produced from organic dairies that go through a rigorous certification process with the Department of Agriculture. Absent this certification process, the claim that milk is "hormone free" is absolutely meaningless. But it allows some greedy producers to attempt to differentiate their milk from other milk and earn a price premium on it.

The dairy processors who want to exploit the "hormone free" designation are pressuring dairy farmers to stop using rBST, which enhances milk production (and boosts dairy farmer profits) by about 10 percent. Few of these farmers receive any financial incentives to stop using the synthetic, and the premium paid to these few farmers isn't large enough to cover their losses so those who yield to their pressure end up earning less from their cows. But the dairy processors reap the profits for a product that cannot be distinguished from rBST-enhanced milk in terms of safety, composition, nutrition, or taste. While there are chemical tests that can distinguish between organic milk and non-organic milk, there are no chemical tests that can distinguish between milk produced using synthetic rBST and "hormone free" milk because cows produce hormones anyway.

The difference comes when a consumer, concerned that her newborn is ingesting too many chemicals, decides to go with the "hormone free" milk at an extra dollar a carton, and gets nothing different than if she'd chosen a carton that does not say "hormone free." The consumer's fears are being exploited. She's reading a label, but not seeing the fine print. Hormone free milk is presented as being "better" or "safer" than milk produced using rBST. But it isn't!

Diary processors like Hood and Garelick are taking advantage of the natural foods trend and the ways that people's fears about food can be manipulated. Salt, sugar, fats, preservatives and hormones all get a bad name these days, with additives supposedly responsible for everything from obesity to cancer. If these claims can be proven, it makes sense to use them to sell more of a safer product. But there is no such thing as hormone free milk. There's conventionally produced milk, and there's organic milk which, in scarce supply, sells for as much as three times as much as "regular" milk does.

The movement to mislabel milk "hormone free" hurts both dairy farmers and consumers. Dairy farmers are pressured to stop using a production tool that boosts milk production and increases their profit and they aren't getting a cut of the extra money dairy processors get from their faulty labels. And consumers pay more for a product that is not at all different from the cheaper product.

Low-income consumers, especially, wanting the best for their kids are pushed into spending money they can ill afford for a product that is exactly the same as a cheaper product. It's time for the FDA to step in to require dairy processors to do the right thing. Got milk? Got hormones? Got truth?