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Dairy Cooperative Says it Will Fight Monsanto Suit

February 22, 1994

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) _ An Iowa dairy cooperative being sued by Monsanto Co. said Monday it was exercising free-speech rights in notifying customers that it is not using milk from cows treated with a genetically engineered hormone.

But Monsanto, which makes the hormone, said the issue is not First Amendment rights but regulated commercial speech. Monsanto also disclosed it has sued another dairy in Texas over a similar claim.

Both suits were filed last week and claim the dairies are falsely implying that their products are safer than those made with milk produced by herds treated with Monsanto’s bovine somatotropin, also known as BST and sold under the trade name Posilac. The stimulant also is known as rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone.

The suit filed Thursday in federal court in Chicago asks for a ruling that advertising and promotions by Davenport-based Swiss Valley Farms are false and misleading. It wants the cooperative to take corrective action and it asks for a trial to determine damages. A similar suit was filed Friday in Texas against Pure Milk and Ice Cream Co. of Waco, Texas.

″We don’t believe there is any merit in the suit. We are looking for a court determination as to our right for free speech on this subject,″ said a statement released late Monday by Carl E. Zurborg, chief executive of the farmer-owned Swiss Valley Farms.

″Our board has not taken a position as to whether or not Monsanto’s product is good or bad. Our concern is of the consumers’ negative reaction to milk from rBGH-injected cows. Consumers want to know what they are buying and they want a choice,″ said Zurborg’s statement.

The cooperative buys milk from about 2,500 farmers in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Wisconsin. It sells its products in all of those states except Minnesota. At Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis, spokesman Tom McDermott said this is not a First Amendment dispute.

″This really has nothing to do with free speech. We’re not trying to silence them. This is commercial speech,″ McDermott said. ″Commercial speech is regulated.″

Before the hormone became available on Feb. 4, Swiss Valley’s chief of operations, Bill Geisler said the cooperative would not accept treated milk ″because of the possible negative consumer reaction and the negative effect it can have on consumption.″

Monsanto’s suit specifically singled out store signs that say Swiss Valley Farms ″will not knowingly accept milk from BST-treated cows.″ It said those signs impugned the safety of the majority of milk sold in the United States.

Later, the federal Food and Drug Administration said stores and dairies could label milk as coming from untreated cows but could not suggest that that milk was any safer than milk from treated animals.

The FDA has said there is virtually no difference between milk from treated and non-treated cows. The American Medical Association and American Dietetic Association reaffirmed the FDA’s message. But some biotechnology critics, humane organizations and consumer groups question whether the drug poses risks that have not been thoroughly addressed.

In Monday’s statement, Zurborg said that since the FDA proposed its guidelines on Feb. 8, ″we have voluntarily modified our statements in order to comply.″ The statement adds that the FDA has only proposed guidelines, not adopted them.

Zurborg was not available to comment on how the company has changed its statements.

McDermott said Monsanto’s position hasn’t changed.

″We believe the statements they have made, and for all we know are still making, are false and misleading,″ McDermott said.

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