Earlier this year at a "Truth about Milk" forum, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture officials indicated that the commonwealth had authority to make sure milk labels tell the truth. The forum, sponsored by American Agriculturist, centered around the controversy over whether milk processors and marketers could market milk as bovine growth hormone-free.
The week, the Ag Department announced that it had reviewed milk labels from 140 dairy companies. Sixteen label permit holders were found to be false or misleading and need to be changed, according to Ag Secretary Dennis Wolff.
The permit holders whose products are mislabeled are located in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts and will have until Jan. 1 to correct the labels.
Those labels contain claims that cannot be verified, or they imply their product is safer than others through 'absence labeling' – telling consumers what's not present in the milk as opposed to what is.
Claims such as "antibiotic-free" and "pesticide-free" are misleading. All processed milk sold in Pennsylvania is tested a minimum of 10 times to guarantee that it's free of such substances. In fact, marketing such milk is illegal.
"The department must approve labels for milk sold in Pennsylvania," says Wolff. "We're seeing more and more marketing that makes it hard for consumers to make informed decisions."
Inaccurate or unverifiable label claims include such statements as "hormone-free". But all milk contains hormones.
Some labels claim absence of synthetic hormones, such as recombinant bovine somatotropin. But there's no scientific test for determining the truth of this "no rBST" claim.
Some of the mislabeled products cost more, and mislead consumers who cannot afford more expensive milk into believing it's a safer product, notes Wolff. "Consumers are concerned or confused about product labeling," he adds. "It's a subject the department continues to receive many calls about."