Bowing to pressure from consumer advocates, Pennsylvania officials have dropped plans to bar farmers from revealing whether or not milk hails from hormone-enhanced cows. The state's agriculture department on Thursday issued new guidelines that allow dairies to label milk so that customers know if it was produced from cows pumped with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST).

The move comes less than two weeks before a February 1 ban was set to take effect that would have barred dairies in the Keystone State from slapping certain labels on milk products, including "from cows not treated with growth hormone rBST'' and "free of artificial growth hormones."

''This is a victory for free speech, free markets, sustainable farming and the consumer's right to know," Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with the Consumers Union (CU), said about the state's about-face. "Consumers increasingly want to know more about how their food is produced and, particularly, whether it is produced in a natural and sustainable manner. There is no justification for prohibiting information about rBGH use on a milk label.''

He added that the state should be applauded for "realizing that its initial regulation prohibiting such labeling was flawed and for reversing its position.''

The fabricated hormone, marketed by agricultural giant Monsanto, is a synthetic version of a natural one found in cows and is designed to boost their milk output by a gallon or more daily. Consumers in recent years have increasingly gone organic, seeking brands of milk from dairies that nix artificial hormones. According to Consumers Union, use of the faux growth agent has been declining in recent years, dipping from 22.3 percent of all U.S. dairy cows in 2002 to 17.2 percent last year.

The Food and Drug Administration has ruled that the synthetic hormone is safe, but not all experts agree. The CU and other health advocates in this country and abroad are wary of its potential effects on humans, and its use is prohibited in Canada and the European Union.

Many farmers in Pennsylvania and other states have vowed not to use rBGH in their milk products, a claim which in some cases fetches higher prices. The new rules will allow them to continue advertising their fare as free of artificial hormones, but requires them to document their claims--a safeguard applauded by consumer advocates. (Dairies are barred from labeling milk as containing no growth hormones, because cows produce some naturally.)

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, was among a coalition of some 65 organizations that sent a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell protesting the proposed label ban. In a statement released Thursday, he said "The public has a right to complete information about how the milk they buy is produced."

The coalition is currently fighting similar bans that are being mulled by other states, including Washington State, Missouri and Ohio.