GREEN BAY, Wis. (CN) – An Indiana animal health company sued dairy conglomerate Arla Foods for launching a $30 million marketing campaign advertising that its cheeses are safer than competitors’ products because its cows do not consume a hormone supplement.
Eli Lilly and Co. and its subsidiary Elanco US Inc. filed the lawsuit Friday against Arla Foods Inc. USA and Arla Foods Production LLC in Green Bay, Wis., federal court.
At the center of the dispute is a hormone supplement called recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST, which helps promote milk production in cows.
“Arla’s ‘Live Unprocessed’ advertising campaign brings heightened attention to the rBST-related claims on Arla’s product labels and casts them in a new light,” the complaint states. “When viewed in light of this extensive advertising campaign, Arla’s product labeling perpetuates the false claims that rBST is unsafe, that dairy products made using milk from rBST-treated cows is compositionally different and of inferior quality compared to dairy products made from milk of untreated cows, and that rBST is actually an ingredient in some dairy products.”
Elanco – Eli Lilly’s animal health division – claims Arla ignores the fact that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has declared “that rBST is safe, and that there is no discernable difference between milk from cows supplemented with rBST and milk from unsupplemented cows.”
Elanco produces and sells rBST under the brand name Posilac, and says the supplement poses no safety risk to humans. It claims “an attack on the safety of ‘rBST’ is thus an attack on Elanco.”
“Dairy products are typically pasteurized, and pasteurization renders virtually all BST and rBST biologically inactive. Even without pasteurization, BST and rBST are not recognized by the human body as biologically active substances and do not enter the human bloodstream when ingested. Rather, as with other proteins, they are broken down into their component amino acids, which are digested like the components of any other protein,” the complaint states.
At the center of Arla’s first-ever fully integrated U.S. brand campaign is a series of television commercials in which children were asked to explain “what – or who – they thought rBST, xanthan and sorbic acid were,” according to the complaint. The children did not know these are ingredients commonly found in cheese.
One of the 30-second television commercials features a young girl drawing and describing rBST as “an enormous six-eyed monster with ‘razor-sharp horns’ and ‘electrified fur,’” the lawsuit states.
The commercial ends with the girl eating a sandwich with Arla cheese and the words, “No added hormones. No weird stuff.” The commercial is being showing on television and on Arla’s social media pages and website, Elanco says.
Elanco claims “Arla knowingly exploited children’s lack of understanding to generate claims and messages about rBST that it knew would be inaccurate… for its own financial gain.”
“Arla’s assault on rBST’s safety is anything but subtle,” the lawsuit states.
According to a press released cited in the lawsuit, Arla’s $30 million ad campaign is “part of its rapid and bold expansion into the U.S. grocery retail dairy” market and “comes at a tipping point of Americans’ increasingly voracious desire to know more about the products they’re eating and feeding their families.”
Elanco’s lawsuit says Arla’s claims about “no added hormones” on its packaging includes an asterisk with a disclaimer that reads, “No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST treated cows.”
“This disclaimer is unlikely to be noticed or read by most consumers. Even for those who do read it, the disclaimer does not dispel or excuse Arla’s false claims about rBST that are prominently displayed on website,” the complaint states.
Elanco wants a judge to declare that Arla must stop its allegedly false advertising campaign and bring its product labels into compliance with all federal and state law requirements concerning rBST-related claims.
Eli Lilly and Elanco are both based in Indiana. They are represented by Daniel Janssen of Quarles Brady in Milwaukee.
Arla Foods is a global dairy conglomerate headquartered in Denmark, and according to the complaint, the world’s fourth largest dairy company with $10 billion in annual revenues.
The company did not immediately respond Monday to an email request for comment.