The new rule would allow dairy products to contain information about cows being free of hormones, but only if the label also said: "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from cows treated with artificial growth hormones and cows not treated with artificial hormones."
The issue pits dairy farmers, who want advertising restrictions on hormone-free products, against milk processors, who want to continue using national guidelines set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that allow the labeling.
During a public hearing in Salt Lake City on Tuesday attended by about 50 people, a representative for a multinational biotechnology company spoke in support of the proposed rule.
"You're headed in the right direction," said Brian Lowry, of the Monsanto Co., maker of recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rbST, which is injected into cows to increase milk production.
Ogden dairy farmer Kerry Gibson, who also is a Republican state representative, said labeling products as having no artificial hormones or pesticides "elicits an emotional response in consumers who don't have time to research the issue."
"It's misleading to imply that one product is not as safe as another," he said of the proposed rule, which would outlaw claims that cannot be verified by tests established by the Association of Official Analytical Chemists.
But Ardraine Colvin, who was among several parents attending the session, said consumers "are a lot more savvy than you think."
Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Food Industry Association, said Utah is among several states considering its own labeling requirements, which would make it "a nightmare" for processors and retailers to comply with what could become a patchwork of state regulations.
The Utah Food Industry Association favors hormone-free labeling, which he says is consumer-driven.
Mike Winder, of Winder Farms, a West Valley-based home-delivery company, said if the rule were enacted, "Utah could become the laughingstock of the nation" because the state would have to challenge a long list of product claims.
"It's tough to stand up to the giants," he said. "It's more likely that the state would go after local Utah businesses."
Agriculture Commissioner Leonard Blackham, who will decide the issue, said the rule could be finalized soon, "and then we'll have another 30 days for public comment."