Dairy co-op settles over misrepresentations in Vermont

Bryan Cohen Aug. 4, 2011, 1:50pm

MONTPELIER, Vt. (Legal Newsline) - Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell announced a settlement on Wednesday with a Massachusetts-based dairy cooperative over alleged misrepresentations of some of its products.

Agri-Mark Inc., doing business under the name Cabot Creamery Cooperative, allegedly misrepresented the rBST-free nature of the milk used to make some of its products. The settlement requires that Agri-Mark pay $65,000 to the state of Vermont, donate $75,000 worth of dairy products to local food banks and to take steps to prevent misrepresentations in the future and inform the public accurately as to the rBST status of its products.

Recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST, is a synthesized hormone that is sometimes given to dairy cows by injection to increase milk production.

Sorrell said that consumers need to be able to trust labeling claims and public statements about the food they buy, especially when it comes to attributes they care about, such as the use of hormones to product the milk from which dairy products are made.

"There is no excuse for shading the truth about rBST or any other aspect of our food supply," Sorrell said.

Agri-Mark produes and markets a variety of value-added dairy products, including dairy spreads, butter, cheeses and whipped cream, many under the Cabot brand. Some of these items are made from milk that is certified by farmers as rBST-free, while others are made from milk that does not carry that certification.

During 2009 and 2010, Agri-Mark allegedly stated in emails to members of the public and on the company's Facebook page that "NO milk containing antiboitics or rBST (rBGH growth hormone) is ever allowed for processing." Personnel for the company also allegedly stated in emails to members of the public that the "milk delivered to our two plants in Vermont and our plant in Massachusetts for Cabot Cheese is rBST[-free]...These are the only plants that Cabot has for processing milk to produce our cheeses" and that "all Cabot Butter salted and unsalted [is] produced from milk that [is] rBST ... free." Personnel also allegedly said that members of the public would eventually see a no-artificial-growth hormone icon "on all Cabot packaging."

In addition, in 2009, letters were allegedly released from Agri-Mark's president and general manager that said the company's board of directors had voted to no longer accept milk from cows treated with rBST, and that the company would "no longer [be] accepting such milk as of August 1, 2009."

Sorrell said that as a result of these kinds of public statements, reasonable consumers were likely to conclude that all of Cabot's products were rBST-free when in fact they were not, which is in violation of the Vermont Consumer Fraud Act's ban on deceptive trade practices.

While the FDA has found no significant difference between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows, many consumers in Vermont are concerned about the use of rBST to treat dairy cows and the hormone affects those consumers' purchasing decisions.

As part of the settlement, Agri-Mark may not mislabel or misstate the rBST status of its products. Included in this prohibition are labels that overstate the rBST-free nature of a product, which includes unqualified statements like "Our farmers pledge not to use rBST." The company must also list all of its non-rBST-free products on its website for three years and provide a list of non-rBST-free products in response to public inquiries made during a fourth year and phase out packaging bearing the "our farmers pledge" statement over the next six months.

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