WASHINGTON - Ben & Jerry's soon will declare on the labels of ice cream products such as Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia its opposition to using artificial hormones in dairy cows.
The government says the hormone known as BGH is safe, but Ben & Jerry's labels will announce that farmers supplying milk to the company have agreed not to use the genetically engineered substance to increase milk output.
Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc. of Burlington, Vt., had wanted to label its products "BGH free." Public health officials in Illinois objected that such language is misleading and could imply that milk from BGH-treated cows is somehow tainted.
Ben & Jerry's and three other organic food companies announced Thursday settlement of a 1996 lawsuit against Illinois. The parties agreed to compromise language to include the statement: "We oppose recombinant bovine growth hormone. The family farmers who supply our milk pledge not to treat their cows" with the hormone.
The label also states that the FDA has found no significant difference between milk from BGH-treated and untreated cows. National distribution of the anti-hormone labels had been held up pending resolution of the suit.
Use of BGH - recombinant bovine growth hormone - has caused consternation among anti-biotechnology advocates since its introduction in 1994. But many dairy farmers viewed it as a way to boost milk production by as much as 10 percent.
BGH, also known as BST, is produced naturally in a cow's pituitary gland but can be injected as a supplement to increase milk output. The engineered hormone, made by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., is now used in 25 percent of the nation's dairy herd, Monsanto spokesman Gary Barton said.
The Food and Drug Administration certified BGH as safe in February 1993, but Ben & Jerry's chief Perry Odak said the company will not buy milk or cream from hormone-injected cows for any of its products.
"It's both a business decision and part of our social mission," Odak said. "Consumers ought to be able to know what is and is not in their products. Our product is all-natural."
The settlement announced Thursday includes a promise by Ben & Jerry's to mention on its labels that ingredients of the ice cream, such as milk chocolate, could have come from cows treated with BGH.
"There is no way to ensure that they do have BGH-free milk. That's why we had opposed it," said Tom Schafer, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Public Health.
The hormone's natural origins make it impossible to detect in milk from treated cows.
Using hormones to enhance growth of U.S. beef cattle has long been an irritant in relations between this country and the European Union, which in 1989 banned importation of beef containing hormones. The World Trade Organization recently ruled the ban is scientifically unjustified.