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Got rBST-free milk?

February 28th, 2008

By Colette Fox

Milk does a body good, according to the advertising slogan and nutritional guidelines. But which milk does our bodies the most good? In order to reduce fat, many of us long ago switched from whole milk to low fat or skim. And a growing number of us now buy organic milk, even though it can easily double the milk budget.

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(Photo: National Milk Producers Federation)

Now there’s yet another choice to make when you face the dairy case – whether to buy milk from cows that haven’t been injected with artificial hormones.

More and more supermarkets are making that choice easy. Grocery stores across the country operated by The Kroger Company are only selling milk without rBST.

The acronym rBST stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin – a synthetic hormone given to cows to boost their milk supply. It is used interchangeably with rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone.

By either name, the growth hormone has been implicated as possibly not doing human bodies “good” by raising the risk of certain human cancers and resistance to antibiotics, though the evidence is inconclusive.

Lately, consumers have indicated they don’t want to wait for the final proof on whether rBST is safe.

Both Kroger (with more than 2,500 stores across the nation) and the Safeway (with more than 1,700) report that they are responding to customer requests by providing hormone-free milk.

Safeway store-owned brands of milk — such as Lucerne — are rBGH-free, although Safeway stores may sell other brands that are not, according to spokeswoman Teena Massingill. “Our goal is to provide our customers with products they want,” she says.

Even your latte is now rBGH–free – at least if you buy it at Starbucks. Since January 2008, all Starbucks milk, half & half and whipping cream comes from suppliers that do not use rBGH. According to Starbucks, the change is “in response to requests from our customers.”

At the same time, Starbucks stopped offering organic milk, which had been available at an additional cost. The company says its conversion to rBGH-free dairy eliminates “the primary reason our customers ordered organic.”

Milk that’s certified rBGH-free is typically more expensive than conventional milk, but well below the cost of organic — which by definition is free of artificial hormones along with pesticides, antibiotics and synthetic fertilizers.

Sara Kaplaniak, a mother of two in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, believes the premium price is worth it – for both rBGH-free and organic. “If you want to send a message, watch what you buy,” Kaplaniak says. “I try to direct my limited salary toward products that are kinder to the environment and to humans.”

The challenge for consumers is to identify milk from treated and untreated cows – since manufacturers are not required to label it one way or the other – and to decide whether rBGH is something worth worrying about. Those two dilemmas define the current controversy.

THE HISTORY OF BOVINE GROWTH HORMONES

The use of rBST goes back 14 years, but the heightened consumer awareness is fairly recent. “It’s in the last two years where this has really become a phenomenon that is national in scope,” says Chris Galen of the National Milk Producers Federation.

The genetically engineered hormone was developed by the Monsanto company to supplement dairy cows’ natural bovine growth hormone and stimulate milk production. The FDA approved rBST in 1993 — in what opponents call one of the FDA’s most controversial decisions – and Monsanto began selling it the following year under the brand name Posilac. But nearly a decade would pass before many consumers and retailers started demanding rBGH-free milk.

One of the earliest opponents was the ice cream company, Ben & Jerry’s of Vermont, which began posting this label on its ice cream cartons in 1997: “We oppose Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The family farmers who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH.” On its website, Ben & Jerry’s says it believes rBGH “is a step in the wrong direction toward a synthetic, chemically-intensive, factory-produced food supply.”

Gradually, other companies started requesting rBGH-free milk from their processors, who in turn demanded it from farmers. “There really is no difference between the milk,” says Peggy Armstrong of the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents dairy manufacturers. “But consumers have expressed interest in organic and are looking at things they may consider to be more natural.”

“We’ve always pressured grocers, coffee shops and restaurants to carry organic and rBGH-free milk,” says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. “There is a tremendous and growing consumer demand because of health, environmental, and ethical concerns.”

Although Kroger and other retailers cite those customer requests, the dairy industry says the demand originated with retailers who see “rBGH-free” as a smart advertising strategy. “This is certainly a trend that’s happening across the country, but I’d be surprised if there were data that would indicate there’s been a sea change in consumer attitudes in the past two years,” says Galen of the National Milk Producers. “It has become a trend in terms of marketing.”

Galen says the decision to use Posilac is a personal decision made by a minority of dairy farmers. “It’s just like any other tool. Some people find certain tools useful and other people don’t. The majority of farmers haven’t used (Posilac) so for them it’s really no skin off their back.”

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