A woman representing consumers on a state committee developing new rules for labels that appear on dairy products has a conflict of interest, a national organization says.Robin Steiner formerly worked for Monsanto Co., which markets the synthetic growth hormones at the center of the labeling debate. Steiner’s husband also is a dairy farmer, and he uses the synthetic hormones in his herd.
Dairy farmers who don’t use hormones in their cows want to advertise that fact on product labels. But farmers who do use the hormones to stimulate milk production say such labels imply that their products are inferior.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture formed an advisory committee to help decide labeling standards, and Steiner was chosen to advocate for consumers.
“We’re not happy about it,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a group that promotes local, chemical-free, humanely raised and clearly labeled food.
“We don’t think that’s a typical consumer,” Lovera said of Steiner.
Food & Water Watch is following the labeling issue because it’s gained traction in other states. Pennsylvania recently passed stringent rules prohibiting misleading language on milk and dairy product labels. The state delayed implementing the rules after public outcry prompted a review.
“It’s happening at the state level, but it has national implications,” Lovera said.
Steiner said she is “not in this for Monsanto,” a company that laid her off during a reorganization. “There’s not a lot of feelings left” for the company after parting ways in that manner, Steiner said.
Saying she didn’t think information about her employment with Monsanto was relevant, Steiner declined to provide details.
Her feelings on the labeling issue are influenced more by personal factors, Steiner said. For example, her mother, an elderly widow, lives on a limited income and doesn’t have extra money to spend on milk that isn’t compositionally different from less-expensive types, she said.
The Agriculture Department’s advisory committee has about 20 members including dairy farmers, farm organizations and Ohio State professors. Its next meeting, which is open to the public, will be from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, 8995 E. Main St.
Agriculture officials who chose the members did not know about Steiner’s employment at Monsanto when they asked her to participate, agency spokeswoman Melissa Brewer said.
Steiner is the only committee member with “consumer” listed as her affiliation. But Brewer said that others on the panel represent the consumer viewpoint, such as a member of Simply Living, a group that advocates for simplified lives and greater environmental awareness.
Steiner “adds a very important voice to a very aggressive committee,” said Robert Boggs, director of the Agriculture Department.
Boggs said the supply of milk from cows treated with synthetic hormones is going to be significantly reduced in Ohio because companies such as Kroger shun it.
Boggs contends that these larger issues, which could have “significant economic impact” on Ohio, are being ignored while smaller issues, such as label information, are debated.