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Why hormone-free labels and other claims don’t really tell the story

By Leslie Ballentine, Farming and food commentator

I just read a news feature by a Vancouver Sun reporter who, for personal reasons, has looked into the food labels that appear on our grocery shelves.

His story arose after seeing a milk carton labeled “hormone free” and purchasing local organic chickens, “worth the premium, my wife said, because, among other things, they were hormone free.” He wanted to check it out for himself and so went onto Google and into stores to do some research of his own. By his own admission his research confirmed both his suspicion and his “ignorance”.

“It turns out that it is illegal to use growth hormones on poultry in Canada,” he wrote. “So the ads that I have been seeing for hormone-free chickens and Thanksgiving turkeys may not be dishonest, but they are at least misleading. If organic, free-range chickens are hormone free, the implication is that the ordinary, affordable variety are pickled with the stuff.”

A little more research led this journalist to discover that “it turns out that all milk in Canada is hormone free,” noting that use of the added growth hormone rBST on dairy cattle is not allowed in Canada.  “So to advertise being hormone free as a benefit of paying the premium of certified organic milk,”  he wrote, “as the Burnaby based Avalon dairy does on its website, is to insinuate falsely that ordinary milk isn’t as safe even though “hormone free” it is in itself a true statement.”

His reading of the implications echos the concerns of those in the farming community when it comes to such advertising.

This then led him to question what we are really getting when we pay the premium price for specialty marketed food. He found a Victoria store offering two varieties of fresh turkeys that could be ordered ahead for Thanksgiving.  A free-range, veggie-fed, hormone free turkey raised on Vancouver Island for $4.49 a pound or a farm-fed, veggie-fed, hormone-free turkey raised in Langley for $3.99 a pound.  “I presume veggie fed means no steak”, he quipped, “but since the poultry advertised as “grain fed” can be given meat protein - chickens are omnivores - I’m not sure.”

As he correctly pointed out, free range doesn’t have an exact definition, but it carries the expectation that they spend at least part of their time outside. “The Chicken Farmers of Canada say that all chickens raised for meat in this country are free run, that is, they are allowed to move about freely inside a barn”, he explained.  The same can be said for turkeys too.

“I wonder how much of the concern over animal welfare is based on human sensibilities as opposed to chickens”, he pondered. And goes on to say:  “That whole free range thing might not sound so good when it’s raining. And “pecking order” isn’t just a colourful phrase for these birds. So for all of those egg-layers, those individual cages might seem a benefit. For all I know, they consider it to be more couch time.”

A little more shopping at Thrifty Foods found “you can buy a fresh Lilydale turkey for $1.99 a pound and they throw in a bag of frozen vegetables. All of these turkeys are hormone free. And studies have consistently shown that organic food has the same nutritional content as the cheaper varieties. The Nutrition Facts label on Avalon’s conventional milk are identical to those on their organic version,” he discovered.

He summed up his walk through the food marketing world as follows. “For the difference between the two, beside the price gap, I’ll quote the sales pitch from Harmony Organic, an Ontario dairy that offers milk from cows that are “treated with love and respect.”

“Imagine a peaceful hillside. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and on the lush pastures cows are contentedly grazing. This scene is a reality on our farms. Our cattle have access to fresh air, clean water and sunshine on a daily basis year round.”

“I’ve experienced winter in Ontario”, he concluded, “and it’s not all sunshine and lush pastures. Still, as a selling point, this is closer to the truth than perpetrating the hormone myth.”

Unlike, I suspect,  most shoppers, this man has done some of his homework.

Until the Next Blog




Posted by FFC on October 10th, 2011 :: Filed under Chickens,Consumers,Dairy cattle,Food,Misconceptions,Organics,Turkeys
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6 Responses to “Why hormone-free labels and other claims don’t really tell the story”

  1. Rob
    October 17th, 2011

    If all dairy products are supposedly “hormone free” why is it that trade publications are filled with glossy ads for a wide variety of reproductive hormones designed to be administered to lactating dairy cows? While claims about the absence of artificial growth hormones (rBST) MAY be true (recent events notwithstanding), it is certainly not true that conventional milk is “hormone free.” Be very careful about which myths you’re trying to bust and which ones you’re perpetuating, Ms. Ballentine.

  2. Jan
    October 21st, 2011

    I would suggest that you do a little more research on those reproductive hormones. those hormones when used in proper dosages then no residue is left behind because those hormones are the same as to what the cow naturally produces

  3. Rob
    October 24th, 2011

    Jan, you are correct that cows naturally produce reproductive hormones, which are naturally present in the milk, thereby giving lie to the claim that all milk is “hormone free.” The simple facts are that no milk is “hormone free,” that Canadian milk is supposedly from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones (rBST), and that organic cows are not given routine doses of synthetic reproductive hormones. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

  4. Jan
    October 25th, 2011

    Rob, one of my jobs as a dairy farm consultant we go into farms and we look at how the cows are fed and weather or not the farm is operating without problems and to get rid of so called “band aids”. these band aids we believe are feeding Bipass protein, excess minerals, needling programs for fertilization, feeding sodium bycarbonate and hoof hardeners. we then look into what the reason is why people use these products and try to have the cow naturally get into its heat cycle and let it produce its own sodium bycarbonate. make sure the cows get the right minerals. thats what we try to do instead of covering up problems.

  5. Chris
    January 16th, 2012

    Could someone please clarify whether it is true that poultry farmers in Canada are forbidden from using artificial growth hormones? A nutritionist once told me that this is true for beef and dairy — but I have read differently in my research, at least for Canadian beef.

  6. Patricia Grotenhuis
    January 20th, 2012

    Hi Chris

    It is illegal to use artificial growth hormones in Canadian chickens, whether they are being used for egg or meat production, and in Canadian dairy. (The hormones mentioned in comments above that are used in dairy are for reproduction.) Farmers can use artificial growth hormones in small amounts in beef cattle, but not all farmers do. For more information, you can go to http://www.farmissues.com and visit the Farming Facts or The Real Dirt on Farming. Producer groups, who are linked to on the Farming Facts pages, are also helpful for questions like this. I hope that helps!

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