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Appeals Panel Suspends Vermont’s Milk Hormone Labeling Law

August 8, 1996 GMT

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) _ The rights of dairies outweighs consumers’ right to know what’s in their milk, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday, suspending Vermont’s law requiring labels on products from cows given bovine growth hormone.

The 2-1 decision by a 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New York said there was no proven health threat from the genetically engineered hormone BGH, and that a lower court ``abused its discretion″ last September by refusing to block the law from taking effect.

``We are aware of no case in which consumer interest alone was sufficient to justify requiring a product’s manufacturers to publish the functional equivalent of a warning about a production method that has no discernible impact on a final product,″ said the decision, written by Circuit Judge Frank Altimari.

Now, the state is prevented from requiring stores to label products made with BGH until U.S. District Court Judge J. Garvan Murtha hears a trial on the case.

In 1993 the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of BGH, also known as recombinant bovine somatatropin, to help dairy cows increase their milk production by up to 15 percent. Extensive testing found that it did not change the makeup of milk and posed no human health threat.

But opponents feared the hormone could have unknown long-term health effects and could cause a glut of milk that would put some small Vermont farmers out of business.

Vermont’s Legislature in 1994 passed a law requiring the labeling of most dairy products with milk from cows treated with BGH. And since last September, stores have used blue labels on packages or signs to tell buyers.

Dairies and grocery groups sued, arguing the law infringed on their right to free speech and that it violated the free commerce clause of the Constitution.

The appeals panel agreed.

``Although the court is sympathetic to the Vermont consumers who wish to know ... their desire is insufficient to permit the state of Vermont to compel the dairy manufacturers to speak against their will,″ the decision said.

Lawyers for the Vermont attorney general’s office said Thursday they haven’t decided whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

``Good riddance to bad policy,″ said Peter Shafer, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America.

The Vermont Grocers Association said it would begin notifying the group’s 800 members they could remove labels as soon as they received official word of the decision.

Vermont Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves said he would push for a voluntary labeling law during the next legislative session.

``I think the concept is worth defending,″ Graves said. ``From the consumer’s perspective, a voluntary approach″ to labeling would provide the same information ``in a much more positive fashion.″