SALEM, Ohio – Some see it as a marketing gimmick. Some think it’s a scare tactic. And some say it’s a perfectly legitimate concern.
But no matter what it’s called, it’s an issue that has the dairy industry taking sides.
The center of the controversy is recombinant bovine somatatropin (rbST), a synthetic growth hormone used to increase milk production in dairy cattle.
Earlier this year, processors in the Northeast and Mideast began labeling and marketing rbST-free milk. Now, some processors won’t accept milk from cows given rbST and producers are being asked to sign documents binding them to the production of rbST-free milk.
Monica Coleman, spokesperson for Dairy Farmers of America, said it’s a trend that’s gaining momentum.
Approved. The hormone was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after extensive research and launched commercially in 1994.
Terry Etherton, head of the dairy and animal science department at Penn State, said rbST is identical to the bST cows produce on their own, so the composition of the milk is not affected.
He also said there are no tests to determine whether or not milk has rbST in it.
Some milk is also being marketed as hormone-free, according to Etherton. But it’s not possible for milk to be totally hormone free because all milk contains natural hormones from the animal that produces it.
“When they say ‘hormone free’, it’s just absolutely not correct,” he said.
Etherton worries about the effect that kind of marketing will have on consumers.
“The word ‘hormone’ concerns and scares people,” he said.
The request to forgo rbST has outraged dairy farmers like Annville, Pa., producer Dan Brandt, who said processors are trying to scare the public into consuming certain kinds of milk.
“They were just looking for a way to sell more milk than the next guy in the dairy case,” Brandt said.
Processors and bottlers should be promoting all milk instead of trying to frighten consumers, he added.
Etherton said rbST-free milk is being marketed as a middle-ground product, situated somewhere between conventional milk and organic items.
The other side. But not everyone thinks rbST-free milk is a ridiculous notion.
The Vermont Milk Co. in Montpelier, Vt., is a new business, owned and controlled primarily by dairy farmers, that produces cheese, ice cream and yogurt. Part of the company’s business plan includes paying its milk suppliers a minimum of $15 per hundredweight.
Planning for the company began in 2003 when a group of farmers decided that owning and controlling a processing plant was the only way to regain control of decreasing milk prices.
According to Anthony Pollina, Vermont Milk Co. vice president, the company was formed with the intent to market rbST-free milk.
“There’s no real benefit to having this stuff (rbST) on the market and consumers don’t want it,” he said. “Overall, it has done nothing for the dairy industry except drive consumers away.”
Pollina said the move to market rbST-free milk is partly to regain lost market share, but it has more to do with the product itself.
Pollina said consumers, especially those in the Northeast, have expressed a lot of concern over rbST and the use of hormones is becoming unpopular in that area.
“This is a technology that was approved through a corrupted process and that’s why I don’t trust the product,” he said.
He added that labeling milk as rbST-free shouldn’t be a problem.
“If the milk is in fact different, why shouldn’t you be able to tell consumers your milk doesn’t have this?” he asked.
How much demand? Although proponents of rbST-free milk say there’s a big demand for the product, those on the other side of the fence say it’s a fabricated interest.
“There is not a shred of evidence indicating this is even on the radar screen for consumers,” said Penn State’s Etherton. “This is a manufactured event by the processors.”
Lebanon, Pa., dairy producer Tom Krall said he fears the dairy industry’s image will be permanently damaged by this controversy.
“My biggest concern is that milk will get a bad name or be confusing to consumers and the farmer is going to be one who loses,” he said.
There is also concern over dairy farmers losing their right to choose how to manage their herd.
“We’re trying to get the farmers to band together to preserve our right to use approved products,” Brandt said.
Etherton agreed, saying producers should have the right to select products that enhance the profitability of their farm.
Finances. Money also speaks loudly in this debate.
While milk labeled as rbST-free sells for 50 cents to $1 more per gallon than other milks, Etherton said the money isn’t going back to farmers.
Brandt and Krall want producers who choose not to use rbST to require processors to link those higher retail prices back to farmers as compensation for not using rbST.
Krall worries farmers will be left financially responsible for trucking, hauling and rerouting costs since rbST-free milk couldn’t be mixed with other milk.
What’s next? Pollina said consumer demands should dictate where the dairy industry will go next. But if producers give up rbST today, Brandt wonders what other production tool they’ll have to surrender tomorrow.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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