The ice cream maker has joined a national campaign to block what critics say is an effort driven by Monsanto Co., which markets recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST, also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH.
The hormone, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration to boost production in dairy cows in the early 1990s, was not approved in Canada, Japan or the European Union, largely out of concerns it may be harmful to animals.
A newly formed farmers' group, backed by Monsanto, is pushing for labeling changes, saying the hormone-free labels imply that the milk is safer than other milk, when they say it's not.
"There's no question that rBST is safe," said Carrol Campbell, a Kansas dairy farmer who co-chairs American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology, the new group. "That's what's so frustrating to us, that there are organizations out there that would indicate that it's something other than safe."
Under FDA guidelines, companies are allowed to claim that their milk comes from cows that were not treated with rBGH, as long as the labels do not "mislead consumers" to believe the milk is safer or better.
Monsanto says the issue revolves around accuracy in labeling, while critics say consumers have a right to know what is and isn't in their food.
"We're very concerned about, from a primary standpoint, the freedom of speech to be able to put what we believe is truthful and appropriate messaging on our packaging," said Rob Michalak, a spokesman for Ben & Jerry's.
So far, efforts to ban hormone-free labeling have stalled.
Pennsylvania, the nation's fifth-largest dairy state, banned the hormone-free labeling in October, but later rescinded the ban. Ohio has held hearings on the issue, and the state's agriculture director is expected to issue a decision early this year.
Last week, Indiana Rep. William Friend pulled legislation that would have made it illegal to label dairy products as free of rBGH, since there's no test to determine if the hormone was used. He said there was too much controversy about the labeling issue and that legislators needed more time to study it.
"This is obviously a national discussion that needs to be dealt with," he said.