Ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's (search) is scamming consumers with a new campaign that just may land the company in deep fudge brownie.
Ben & Jerry's has introduced a new line of ice cream called "Organic Ben & Jerry's" in select stores in Boston and San Francisco. As part of the campaign, Ben & Jerrys says "your body will thank you" for "ice cream made without use of conventional pesticides or growth hormones. (Whew!)."
The company may want to reconsider that exclamation of relief since Ben & Jerry's claim that its ice cream is made without pesticides (search) or hormones (search ) may constitute "deceptive and misleading labeling" of milk products, in the views of state and federal regulators.
Since 2002, I have led a coalition of consumer groups that has filed complaints with a number of state regulatory agencies and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (search ) about dairy product producers who make false and deceptive claims that their products are made without antibiotics, pesticides and hormones.
In addition to the Ben & Jerry's campaign, for example, Horizon has advertised its milk, butter and yogurt as "free from toxic pesticides" and "hormone-free." Horizon targets children and parents with "products made especially for babies and toddlers" claiming they are "produced without growth hormones, antibiotics (search ) and dangerous pesticides."
Stoneyfield Yogurt (search ) states on its labels, "No yucky stuff… standards prohibit the use of pesticides, antibiotics and hormones" and "yogurts made without the use of antibiotics, hormones and toxic pesticides."
Such claims and promotions create the false and misleading impression with consumers that these dairy products are somehow different from other milk products, that "organic (search)" cows are healthier than other cows, and that the products are nutritionally better for the consumer than other milk products.
Further, these statements incorrectly imply that other dairy products have had pesticides, antibiotics or hormones added.
Antibiotics are never added to milk.
Sick cows (even "organic" cows) may be treated with antibiotics, but by law their milk may not be sold and is discarded while undergoing such treatment. All milk is tested to ensure that antibiotics are not present in milk. Many organic dairies use antibiotic-embedded artificial insemination products, making such antibiotic non-use claims especially dubious.
Pesticides are also never added to milk. Some cows may eat organic feed, but the Department of Agriculture's (search) standards for organic labeling allow farmers to use "organic" pesticides, some of which are, in fact, manmade.
Organic dairies use "toxic" pesticides to control various pests on their farms. Natural pesticides and others allowed by organic standards are "toxic," just like those used in conventional farming -- that';s why they're used. Claims such as "no toxic pesticides" found on certain dairy labels are simply false and misleading.
As far as hormones are concerned, all milk contains hormones -- over 25 different hormones, including bovine growth hormone (search), are naturally found in milk. Vitamin D3 (search), which is added to milk, is in fact a hormone.
Recombinant bovine somatotropin (search), also called rbST or rbGH, is a protein supplement that conventional farmers administer to cows to increase milk production. The FDA has determined that milk from such cows is the same as milk from cows that have not received such supplements. No farmer adds rbST to milk.
The bottom line is that milk is milk.
Ben & Jerry's may need to learn this fact the hard way since my coalition's efforts against false and misleading dairy labeling are paying off.
In a November 2002 letter, the state of Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture urged the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to take "corrective action" related to "deceptive and misleading labeling of fluid milk products currently being sold in Massachusetts."
Ben & Jerry's may want to take particular note of this letter since Boston is the current location of a test market for Organic Ben & Jerry's ice cream.
The coalition's efforts with the FDA are also progressing.
The FDA recently indicated that it will investigate potentially false and misleading dairy labeling claims and will consider enforcement measures.
Although federal regulations permit companies to advertise their products as "organic," this amounts to nothing more than government-sanctioned marketing.
"Let me be clear about one other thing. The organic label is a marketing tool. It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is 'organic' a value judgment about nutrition or quality," said former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman (search ) when the federal organic standards were announced in 2000.
Ben & Jerry's and many other organic producers violate the law when they make claims to the contrary.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).