Hormone-free milk ad is false

Daily Herald Online
Grace Leong
May 4, 2007

Excerpt…

Got synthetic hormone-free milk?

How ’bout controversy?

A milk marketing campaign by Associated Food Stores has riled several dairy farmers across the Beehive State and caught the eye of a state agency, forcing the Salt Lake City-based grocery cooperative to change its milk ads starting Sunday.

At issue is what has been described by the state and irate dairy farmers as a “misleading” milk ad run by 170 of Associated Food’s 400-plus independently owned and corporate-owned stores, including Macey’s, for the past two weeks.

The ad says: “Got Hormones? We Don’t.”

But there’s no such thing as hormone-free milk, said Kyle Stephens, deputy commissioner of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

“Hormones are naturally occurring in milk, so the ad is false and misleading,” he said.

Starting Sunday, Stephens said, Associated Foods will change its milk ads to say “Got All Natural Milk? Our Cows Do.”

“We want to be good corporate citizens. But obviously we’ve offended the dairy farmers,” said Neal Berube, chief operating officer with Associated Foods.

“We respect them and are compassionate to their needs. But we’re not embarrassed about giving consumers a choice.”

Meanwhile, Associated Foods can continue advertising its store brand, Western Family milk, as “all natural from cows not treated with the growth hormone rbST,” Stephens said.

That’s because the Food and Drug Administration allows the term “all natural” to be used on milk products that don’t use added colors or synthetic materials, he said.

…rbST, is a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring hormone that was approved by the FDA in 1993 to boost milk production. There’s no significant difference between milk from cows treated with the growth hormone and untreated cows, the federal agency said.

Even its natural form, bovine somatotropin, a naturally occurring protein found in cow’s milk, does not have any physiological effect on humans consuming the milk because it is biologically inactive in humans. Pasteurization destroys 90 percent of bST in milk, the FDA said.

Dairy industry, retailers divided

But the bioengineered growth hormone, rbST, created by biotech giant Monsanto, remains a controversial issue dividing dairy farmers and retailers, especially those in the organic industry.

“We’re not saying rbST milk is dangerous,” Berube said. “We’re not saying it’s good or bad. We have milk that’s not treated with the hormone rbST and we will continue to let consumers know we have that.”

State Agriculture Commissioner Stephens disagreed.

“These ads are playing on a misunderstanding that rbST-free milk is healthier than rbST milk,” he said. “All milk is natural. And there are no tests that can be conducted to differentiate between rbST and rbST-free milk.”

Still, some consumers are wary, and more seem to be requesting for their milk to be rbST-free, he said.

Fueling such concerns is a recent petition by a coalition including the Organic Consumers Association for the FDA to ban rbST because it allegedly increased the risk of certain kinds of cancer for those who drank milk from rbST-treated cows. But Monsanto, which produces the rbST hormone, maintains it’s safe.

More retailers go rbST-free

Those health concerns are apparently prompting other retailers to make changes too.

In Utah, Kroger-owned Smith’s Food & Drug stores have begun offering certified synthetic hormone-free milk.

“Our milk suppliers are now providing us with raw milk they have certified as being free of the synthetic hormone rbST, so Smith’s has recently begun using that supply in all our milk production,” Marsha Gilford, Smith’s spokeswoman said in a statement Thursday.

“Utah customers will find information on the milk container label and may possibly see some in-store notification in the dairy section.”

Elsewhere in the nation, Chipotle started using rbST-free sour cream on its burritos and tacos this year, and Starbucks said it would use more milk without synthetic hormones.

Earlier this week, a Florida-based supermarket chain, Publix Super Markets, began introducing a full line of milk without rbST.

Utah dairy farmers worried

Those changes are a troubling trend for dairy farmers like Brad and Jason Bateman of Bateman’s Mosida Farms in Alberta, who have been using rbST intermittently for the past eight years to increase their cows’ milk production.

“This is just some marketing program that some silk suit dreamed up of to differentiate their milk,” said Brad Bateman, a third-generation Utah dairy farmer. “If we stopped using rbST, it would cost us upwards of a dollar per hundredweight to produce milk and we will be producing 10 percent to 12 percent less milk.”

Bateman’s Mosida currently ships 420,000 pounds of milk per day to processors including Dannon Co. in West Jordan, Meadow Gold Dairies and Cream O’Weber Dairy in Salt Lake City, and retailers like Smith’s Food & Drug.

Already, four to five Utah County producers have closed their dairies in the past year due to increasing urbanization and other industry challenges, said Jason Bateman, Brad’s brother and a board member of Dairy Farmers of Utah, a nonprofit group representing more than 300 dairy farmers statewide.

Dairy industry’s woes

Skyrocketing crude oil prices have driven up operating costs for many dairy farmers, but milk prices have remained low, pinching revenues, Jason Bateman said.

“This past year, our energy costs of propane and diesel have gone through the roof, as well as our equipment and fertilizer costs,” he said. “We’re now paying $53,000 a month in fuel surcharges for freight shipping into and out of our farm, which we can’t pass on to the processors. Our feed costs have jumped because corn prices have increased dramatically due to growing ethanol demand.”

The last thing we want to do is put dairy farmers out of business, Associated Food’s Berube said.

“We didn’t invent rbST-free milk. Consumers across the country want more organic products. The government wants consumers to have more information through better labeling,” he said. “Our suppliers, Meadow Gold and Layton Dairy, began asking for milk without rbST in March. That will become the normal mode of production as demand for organic food increases.”

Milk produced without the synthetic hormone generally costs 30 cents to 35 cents more per hundredweight, according to Steve Frischknecht, a board director of Utah Dairy Commission and secretary of the United Dairy Association in Chicago.

That type of milk costs more….

But this shouldn’t affect the cost of Associated Food’s milk, Berube said.

“We’re not charging a premium on rbST-free milk. But we’ve heard some other retailers using this to get up to $1 more profit,” he said.

The grocer co-op now offers rbST-free milk only in one-gallon and half-gallon bottles under the Western Family, Meadow Gold and Shur Savings brands.

Nonetheless, these trends are worrying dairy farmers like the Batemans.

“If we lose an advantage like rbST, which helps us produce milk cheaper, it’s like taking money out of our pocket,” Jason Bateman said. “More dairy farmers will go out of business because they’ll be less profitable.”…

Full article at Daily Herald Online.

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