The Utah Department of Agriculture and Food is considering a change to dairy labeling that leaves critics with a sour taste in their mouths.

The administrative rule under consideration prohibits companies from making false or misleading statements about milk and dairy products on their packaging. Companies that tout their products free of artificial growth hormone will have to clarify on their packaging that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not found a significant difference between milk from cows that receive the hormone — technically called recombinant bovine growth hormones, or rbGH — and cows that do not.

Under the proposed rule, the state can penalize violators up to $5,500 per occurrence. In addition, dairy permits may be suspended or revoked, and the state may recall misbranded products.

Scientists have disagreed about the safety of rbGH. Farmers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the European Union are not allowed to use it, according to the Oregon Chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, whose director spoke against the proposed rule at a hearing Tuesday in Salt Lake City.

Yet Utah Commissioner of Agriculture Leonard Blackham said a labeling rule is necessary to prevent consumers from being misled about the conclusions of the FDA, which believes rbGH is not harmful to people. Blackham recalls seeing dairy products in Utah stores stating, "No Hormones!"

"All food from a living organism has hormones," Blackham said.

About 50 people attended Tuesday's hearing; about 20 people — most representing professional and trade associations — spoke to commissioners, mostly in opposition of the proposed rule.

Jim Olsen of the Utah Food Industry Association believes the FDA should be the agency to regulate labeling, not the states.

"We're going to end up with a patchwork of rules that will be a burden for interstate suppliers," he said.

Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch, which is fighting to remove rbGH from milk, said consumers do not benefit when content on labels is controlled. The group is based in Washington, D.C.

"This is a restriction on commercial speech and unconstitutional," said Caroline Silveira of the Association of Food, Beverage and Consumer Products Cos. in Sacramento, Calif.

"This rule is unnecessary," said Clay Hough of the International Dairy Foods Association, based in Washington. "Utah's consumers are not being misled or cheated. There's no public outcry to change dairy labels."

It's difficult to say how many Utah dairy farmers are using rbGH, said Mark Gibbons, president of the 270-member Dairy Producers of Utah. Farmers operate their businesses differently — some work in cooperatives, while others work for dairies.

Gibbons supports the proposed rule but does not use rbGH in his cows because he works for Gossner Foods, which required all farmers in 2006 to sign affidavits promising not to use it.

And while opponents think the proposed rule is restrictive, a handful of dairy farmers complained that the current conditions are restrictive.

The current labels "use language that elicits an emotional response among the consumers," said Rep. Kerry Gibson, R-Ogden, who works as a dairy farmer and supports the proposed rule.

Representatives from St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which sells rbGH, said they support the bill with some tweaks that wouldn't hurt certain types of labeling, such as "kosher" and organic. Critics believe state agricultural commissioners are being unfairly sympathetic to Monsanto's need to clarify the FDA's position on rbGH.

Agriculture and Food spokesman Larry Lewis denied that claim: "We've been hearing from both sides."

Utah agriculture commissioners will consider comments based from Tuesday's meeting and will soon create a new rule, which the public can comment on for 30 days, before deciding to officially enact it.

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