The file’s contents spilled out of one folder and into a second. Then a third.
For at least seven years in the late 1980s and until 1993, we tracked and reported and wrote about the research and pending FDA decision on the use and commercial sale of bovine somatotropin, or bST.
After its approval in 1993, we followed the aftermath, the letters, the labeling controversies.
But slowly, the articles waned. It was, after all, an approved technology – the milk from bST-treated cows no different from the milk from cows not treated.
And so a couple of years ago, I condensed those three monster file folders back into one, wondering why I was even bothering to keep it.
But I pulled it out again this week, paging through the material and wondering how agriculture missed the consumer education boat time and again in the past 14 years.
Today, bST is rbST (recombinant bovine somatotropin) and is back in the headlines, as milk processors and retailers go “rbST-free” – even though the milk from rbST-treated cows is no different from the milk from cows not treated.
In a nutshell, bST is a protein that occurs naturally in dairy cows. Using recombinant DNA technology, rbST can be produced and given to cows, directing more energy from feed into milk production.
Some large herds use it, some do not; some small herds use it, some do not. Some family farms use it, some do not. It is a tool in the dairy manager’s arsenal.
Regardless, an underground effort to feed on the perception that somehow milk from rbST-treated cows is different has brewed and now bubbled to the surface. The latest headline came this summer when Kroger announced it would no longer sell milk from rbST-treated cows.
And that led milk marketing co-op Dairy Farmers of America and its Dairy Marketing Services arm to inform milk producers that all DFA milk that goes to Class I plants must be from nonrbST-treated cows by Jan. 1. Producers have to sign an affidavit to continue to ship to Class I, or fluid milk, plants.
Incidentally, in 2006, DFA marketed more than 61.7 billion pounds of milk, or 34 percent of the U.S. milk supply.
I have a real problem with the phrase “rbST-free milk,” which implies that there is rbST milk. Repeat after me: There is no significant difference in the milk from cows treated with rbST and cows not treated with rbST.
But perception is reality. To consumers, the very strange-sounding, ominous-looking rbST seems negative.
For farmers, the question is whether or not they care enough to fight for the right to use a legally-approved product, a management tool. And consumers need to know more about rbST, why it’s used and how it’s used. Right now I don’t see anyone waging that p.r. battle, other than Monsanto, maker of the only commercially approved rbST product. DFA sure isn’t.
And that’s a switch from the co-op board’s position (or at least that of its midwestern predecessor, MMI) back in 1993: “… MMI will actively support the development and implementation of a consumer education program on the benefit of milk consumption and the proven science that demonstrated no human health reason for concern regarding the consumption of milk which contains levels of bST in any form.”
The game is about power, and agriculture just lost.
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.)