Vermont Press Releases

Agri-Mark/Cabot settles claims of “rBST-free” misrepresenations

August 3, 2011

William H. Sorrell Attorney General (802) 828-3173
Elliot Burg Assistant Attorney General (802) 828-5507

Agri-Mark, Inc., a Methuen, Massachusetts-based dairy cooperative that does business under the name Cabot Creamery Cooperative, has agreed to settle claims by Vermont Attorney General William H. Sorrell that the company misrepresented the “rBST-free” nature of the milk used to make some of its products. Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), is a synthesized hormone that is sometimes given to dairy cows by injection to increase milk production. The settlement requires Agri-Mark to pay $65,000 to the State of Vermont, to donate $75,000 worth of dairy products to local food banks, and to take steps to prevent misrepresentations in the future and accurately inform the public as to the rBST status of its products.

Commenting on the settlement, Attorney General Sorrell said that consumers need to be able to trust public statements and labeling claims about the food they buy, especially when it comes to attributes they care about, such as the use of hormones to produce 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,” he added. Agri-Mark produces and markets a variety of value-added dairy products, including cheeses, dairy spreads, butter and whipped cream, many under the Cabot brand. Some of these items are made from milk that is certified by farmers as rBST-free; others are made from milk that is not so certified, recently including Swiss cheese, mozzarella cheese, whipped cream, American cheese, Colby Jack cheese, Monterey Jack cheese, cheddar powder, butter, muenster cheese, full-fat pepper jack cheese, horseradish cheese, New York extra sharp cheese, and spreadable cheddar cheese.

Nonetheless, during the years 2009 and 2010, Agri-Mark staff stated in emails to members of the public and on the company’s Facebook page that “NO milk containing antibiotics or rBST (rBGH growth hormone) is ever allowed for processing” (emphasis in original). Company personnel also 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”; that “all Cabot Butter salted and unsalted [is] produced from milk that [is] rBST … free”; and that members of the public would eventually see a no-artificial-growth hormone icon “on all Cabot packaging.” In addition, in 2009, letters were released from Agri-Mark’s President and General Manager that said that the company’s board of directors had voted to no longer accept milk from cows treated with rBST, and that Agri-Mark would “no longer [be] accepting such milk as of August 1, 2009.”

According to the Attorney General, 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, in violation of the Vermont Consumer Fraud Act’s ban on deceptive trade practices.

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

Under the Attorney General’s settlement, Agri-Mark may not misstate or mislabel the rBST status of its products. Included in this prohibition are labels that overstate the rBST-free nature of a product, including unqualified statements like “Our farmers pledge not to use rBST”—a statement that currently accompanies Cabot’s “No Bovine Growth Hormone” logo and misleadingly suggests that all farmers who sell milk to Agri-Mark have taken such a pledge. Agri-Mark must also list all of its non-rBST-free products on its website for three years, 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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  • Alex Barnham

    I am impressed that Vermont is a real leader in truth in advertising…I could understand a simple mistake by a company when something gets processed and it is a one-time thing. But for companies to flagrantly misrepresent products is really needing some type of penalty.

  • Attorney General William Sorrell is right to sanction Cabot Creamery for claiming that its farmers do not use rBST when they have no reliable process in place to certify the truth of the claim. But rBST is only the canary in the mine, not the problem.

    The conventional farming business model, invented after WWII, is predicated upon externalizing the costs of soil fertility (traditionally accomplished by spreading manure on the same fields from which the herd’s feed is harvested and by crop rotation), weed control (traditionally accomplished by mechanical cultivation) and labor into the environment and it works. In 1940 the average American family devoted 35% of household income to food but today’s family spends only 8% of household income on food. The three-fold difference, referred to as the “miracle of modern American agriculture,” went in the form of a massive transfer of wealth (a) out of the rural economy and into the pockets of those who make and distribute the chemicals (b) and the pockets of manufacturers of consumer goods like cars, televisions, clothes etc. If that were all there was to it fine and dandy. But this was no miracle: the balance went in the form of pollution into the nation’s water, Lake Champlain, the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes and the Chesapeake Bay.

    Cabot made much a few years ago of announcing that in response to consumer preference they would no longer allow their farmers to use rBST. Of course, the customer is always right but in this case, the customer is misinformed: rBST is completely metabolized in the cow’s rumen and it is not detectable in the milk; furthermore its use has no direct impact upon the environment. The same cannot be said for the 17,000 tons/year and 13,000 tons/year of synthetic, nitrogen fertilizers and soluble, petroleum-based herbicides that conventional Vermont dairy farmers apply to their fields in Franklin County and Addison County respectively, some portion of which is taken up by the plants and some portion of which runs off down the hill into the streams and into the lake. There is no denying that these substances are in the lake or that conventional dairy farming is their delivery system: how else did they get there?

    Cabot’s misrepresentation of its farming practices is unethical and reprehensible but it does not stop there. Cabot’s members are all conventional dairy farmers. Yet their coop holds itself out to its consumers as “sustainable,” which conventional dairy farming most certainly is not. The word was invented to distinguish organic farming from conventional.

    My objection to conventionally raised milk is two-fold: first, it achieves its efficiencies by polluting the environment. Second, and most importantly, it over produces its markets, driving down the price of milk to farmers, which in turn drives farm attrition. Labor saving technologies also deprive Vermonters of work, meaning that the “efficiency” of modern farming drives rural economic decay. Cabot Creamery and Ben & Jerry’s pay their farmers FMMO prices, which because of the surplus are reliably if not perennially set below the average Vermont dairy farmer’s cost of production. Why else are they going out of business? The VAAF&M makes much of its Farm to Plate and Save the Working Landscape initiatives but Secretary Ross refuses to address the pernicious effects of the conventional protocol, which is the root cause of the problem.

    The MNFC mission statement says it is committed to ecologically sound and healthful patterns of production and to fostering a healthy community. Yet, the greatest obstacle to the success of organic farming is the availability at the MNFC of the cheaper, environmentally destructive alternative. That practice, once justified as a choice—or a justification for keeping the land open or for feeding Vermonters of all income classes—leaves growers who have made the commitment to farm organically to shoulder the burden alone. Whose responsibility is it to stop exploiting Vermont farmers and pay them as partners in the production of our food if not consumers?

    The issue is muddied when consumers are offered a choice between organic products and those that are conventional but local. All conventional farms are local. Monument Farms, Cabot Creamery, Misty Knoll Chicken, Naturally Pure King Arthur Flour, North Hollow Grass Fed Beef, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade and Lake Champlain All Natural Chocolates fall into this group. We know all these companies are run by good hard working people. But milk, butter, cheese, chicken, flour and chocolate are all available from certified organic producers. And, since conventional agriculture irrespective of whether it is local or produced by friends is predicated on confinement housing, over production, petroleum-based fertilizers, antibiotics, lake pollution, small to medium-sized farm attrition and an anemic rural economy, we must ask if local is the most important criterion for making this choice.

    Certainly, MNFC makes the decision to offer food products according to some set of criteria. But are the criteria now in use apposite? Is there any justification for the Middlebury Natural Food Coop to offer dishonestly described, conventionally produced local or “natural” food to its members, who by entering the coop, indicate implied support for farmers, a clean environment and a robust farm economy but who, through their purchases—and MNFC’s choices—offer explicit support for the cheap, environmentally destructive alternatives?

    James H. Maroney, Jr.