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Nader offers support to Maine dairy's fight against Monsanto

(Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Paul Livingstone and Matt Wickenheiser, Portland (Maine) Press Herald via The Agribusiness Examiner: Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate for president in the last election, has thrown his support behind Oakhurst Dairy as the Portland company fights to keep labels that say its milk comes from farms that don't use artificial growth hormones.

Nader contacted Oakhurst recently to offer free legal help, through his foundation that supports freedom of speech, because he says the small Maine dairy is outgunned financially by Monsanto Co., the chemical firm that had more than $4 billion in sales last year.

Oakhurst's label is completely untouchable. It's free speech," the consumer advocate said during a phone interview [August 13]. "What Monsanto is doing is engaging in frivolous harassing litigation."

Monsanto has "made a serious tactical mistake" by suing Oakhurst, he said. "I think they're beatable in the court of law and the court of public opinion."

Also Wednesday, the dairy asked that the case be moved from the federal court in Boston to the one in Portland. In the filing, Oakhurst argued that the case would be of importance to the state of Maine's regulation of its milk industry, that the outcome could determine the enforceability of state law, and as such belongs in Maine.

Monsanto officials did not return phone calls seeking comment. The company has argued in court filings and previous public statements that Oakhurst labels harm Monsanto because they are misleading. The labels, Monsanto says, inaccurately suggest that there's something wrong with milk if it comes from cows that have been injected with the growth hormone it manufactures.

Since news of the lawsuit came out, Oakhurst has been deluged with support.

Several dozen people who have heard about the court case have sent Oakhurst checks to support its legal defense, which the dairy has returned. Groups from Waldo County to California have organized petition drives. Several hundred people have sent letters and e-mails of support to the company and newspapers. The dairy's milk sales have increased --- though Oakhurst is not sure that the legal dispute is driving consumers.

The frenzied response has Stanley Bennett II, Oakhurst's president, fielding dozens of calls a day from supportive dairy farmers, biotechnology opponents and consumers. Bennett recently was interviewed by a French-language television station from Montreal. Reporters from other countries have been calling and visiting.

"I'm terribly inundated with requests for information about the lawsuit," Bennett said. "I should really be running the business."

Among those organizing support is Jennie Judge, a morning show host with WEBB (98.5-FM), an Augusta country music station. She organized a poster-signing campaign in support of Oakhurst.

"The response was tremendous. People ate it up," she said. "We brought the poster to our Music in the Park day, and we must have had close to 500 signatures on it.

"Monsanto saw what Oakhurst was doing and said, 'Oops, we gotta nip this in the bud.' We're saying, 'Not so fast,' " Judge said.

Bennett called all the support "heartwarming" and said it has helped solidify his conviction to engage in what is likely to be an expensive fight with Monsanto.

"It's our right and obligation, as I see it, to keep people informed as to what is and what isn't used in the production of the foods they consume," said Bennett. "All of the responses are supporting our position and suggesting we fight the good fight and don't buckle under."

Meanwhile, in a motion filed Wednesday, Bennett's lawyers argued that the case belongs in Portland rather than in Boston because only seven percent of Oakhurst's sales occur in Massachusetts and just 1.5 percent of its marketing dollars are spent there.

And the case centers entirely on the dairy's advertising practices --- namely its use of the slogan "Our Farmers' Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones."

Monsanto, which is based in Missouri, argues that no scientific evidence exists to prove milk from cows treated with the hormones differs from milk of untreated cows. It also argues that the slogan confuses consumers into staying away from milk from those cows.

In its filing, Oakhurst noted that the state-sanctioned Maine Quality Trademark is given to milk from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones. If the court decided that the no-artificial-hormone claim is illegal, then the Maine Trademark could be impacted, the motion suggested.

The state hasn't taken an active part in the lawsuit, said Charles Dow, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office. "It's possible that Maine or another state or states could do that, but at this point that's not happened," Dow said.

Another reason for moving the case to Maine is that it would be more convenient for Oakhurst and its witnesses, and no less convenient for Monsanto.

"Unlike Monsanto, Oakhurst is a relatively small and busy family-owned dairy that can ill afford the sacrifice of time, resources and employees that litigation in Boston and round-trip travel from Maine would entail," the motion stated. "By comparison, as a Missouri-based company with offices all over the United States and the world, Monsanto should have no difficulty pursuing its actions in . . . Portland, Maine, which has an international jetport conveniently located within the city.

"With annual gross income approaching $5 billion, Monsanto is in better position to bear any additional expense that it might arguably incur in litigating its action in Maine instead of Massachusetts."

Additionally, said Oakhurst, the dairy will need to call as witnesses state officials who are beyond the subpoena power of the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts. That wouldn't be an issue if the case were moved to Maine, the motion argued.