'rBGH free' threatens production practices

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Sep 01, 2007

The wife of one of my dairy clients recently refused to buy milk from a local convenient store.

Her reason: The store's product was promoted as "rBGH free."

My client's wife didn't stop there. She found the store manager and inquired about the labels. He didn't have an answer; it had not been his decision. She asked if any customer requested this type of milk. He replied that as far as he knew, none had ever done so.

This exchange highlights what I believe is a rather strange marketing strategy by some players in the dairy industry. It already affects many producers and has potential for even larger impact on the way dairy cows are managed.

Most practitioners know that bovine somatotropin, or bovine growth hormone, is a naturally occurring hormone that plays a role in milk production. More than a decade ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved a synthetic (recombinant) form known as rBST or rBGH as a tool to increase milk production. At the time, some small retailers decided to solicit milk from producers who agreed not to use it. These retailers perceived that their customers would pay a small premium for such milk. To some extent, they were making a protest against the continued application of new technology to improve the efficiency of food production.

For many years, the issue was quiet. Meanwhile, organic food sales increased dramatically. At some point, it seems larger retailers decided that a niche market existed for consumers seeking a middle ground between organic and traditional milk. These consumers did not want to pay organic milk prices but had reservations about the technologies used in food production. And rBST-free milk was born.

One might assume that additional costs to provide a specialty product for a niche market would trickle down to consumers. That's not the case when it comes to milk produced without rBST.

Processors, wanting to provide milk to the retailers asking for the rBST-free product, informed their producers that those who wanted to continue using the product would have to bear the cost of handling their milk separately. In other words, those who wanted to continue using a legal, established technology would be have to bear the cost of providing an alternative product, instead of the end user. Does that make any sense?

Regardless of whether it makes sense to you and me, it is the course followed by many dairy processors over the past year. An example is a small processor in Pennsylvania that sells most of its milk through its own stores, but also sells excess to a mega grocery chain. The mega chain told the processor that all of the milk it purchases must come from herds not using rBST. Thus all of the herds selling to the small processor have been told they can't use rBST anymore.

On the consumer end, rather than providing an alternative, many stores offer only rBST-free milk. All consumers pay the same price. The idea of providing a choice has somehow disappeared.

So why should this concern veterinarians serving the dairy industry? I think we should care that the product with which we are intimately associated has been used in a deceitful marketing scheme. When marketers label milk rBST free, they imply that traditional milk is different and inferior. In reality, all milk contains BST and many other hormones.

How is the distinction made between one commercial hormone product, rBST, and the many others we routinely use on dairy farms, such as gonadatropin-releasing factor, prostaglandin and oxytocin? Is anyone concerned that some news show will air a feature presentation that consumers are being deceived by rBST-free milk because other hormones are still being used routinely?

Too many of us have sat quietly on the sidelines as this situation has unfolded. Our producers have more or less done the same, and many of the co-ops that process milk and supply retailers caved in with no resistance at all. It was easier to tell the producer what he or she had to do than to tell the retailers that they would have to bear increased costs associated with providing a specialized product.

It is difficult for a single voice to make a difference. We need to write our government representatives, and urge them to tighten regulations on misleading labeling and advertising. If you are unsure how to proceed, contact me at
, or (610) 395-7210.