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Agri-Mark/Cabot Settles Claims Of rBST-Free Misrepresentations

CONTACT: Elliot Burg, Assistant Attorney General, (802) 828-5507

August 3, 2011

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.

  Website consulting provided by The National Association of Attorneys General.