Growth Chart
by Lynn Petrak
The industry debate over rBST continues, as individual processors and consumers make their choices at the dairy case.
It’s hard to believe it has been a dozen years since the introduction of the commercial form of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), the protein hormone used by dairy farmers to increase milk production in cows.
The passage of time, however, has not stopped the debate over rBST, which is also known as recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) and bovine growth hormone (BGH). Indeed, if one listens carefully to some of the rhetoric still being tossed about on this subject, words like “anti” and “pro,” and “artificial” and “natural,” are commonly used.
There are differences of opinion as well over whether or not the topic of rBST is one on low simmer or high boil. Chris Galen, vice president of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), Arlington, Va., says the core matters related to growth hormones haven’t varied all that much. “There really has not been a reassessment of policy of 12 years ago, when it was approved for use. It hasn’t quite gone away, but it is below our radar screen,” he reports.
Still, says Galen, although the topic may be less broad in scope, it is no less controversial among buyers and sellers alike who are closely involved with its use (or non-use). “It is an emotional issue,” he acknowledges.
Susan Ruland, vice president of communications for the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), Washington, D.C., offers her own take on the rBST debate as it stands today. “In terms of the science, there is really nothing new and our materials haven’t changed that much,” she says. “But we still get processors calling us, and the issue is very much alive.”
Processors also have a range of perspectives, based on their own corner of the marketplace and how they position themselves in it. “From our vantage point, it remains a pretty hot issue,” says Gary Hirshberg, president and chief executive officer of Londonderry, N.H.-based Stonyfield Farm, which markets organic dairy products including milk, yogurt and ice cream.
As consumers continue to demand healthier products, organic processors say such buyers are re-igniting the debate about the content of foods and beverages. “Consumers today are taking a closer look at how food choices impact their overall health and well-being,” says Caragh McLaughlin, senior brand manager for Horizon Organic, the Longmont, Colo.-based brand that’s now part of the WhiteWave family of products owned by Dallas-based Dean Foods Co. “In fact, according to Datamonitor, 60 percent of consumers surveyed believe that lowering one’s exposure to chemicals leads to better health.”
Consumer input was a deciding factor, in fact, in the decision by the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA), Tillamook, Ore., to formally end the use of fluid milk from rBST-treated cows for the cooperative’s cheese production earlier this year, after much-publicized debate during which rBST’s manufacturer lobbied co-op farmers to oppose the move.
“Our consumer research makes clear that our customers expect products carrying the Tillamook brand to be consistently great tasting, of the highest quality and made in traditional ways,” says spokesperson Christie Lincoln, adding that walking the line between educating consumers and working with farmers’ needs can be a thin one. “Consumers today have access to more information, which makes them form opinions more readily than they may have in the past, not all of which are founded on science and government approval. There is a traditional, more science- and regulation-based way we have approached things in the past from a farmer perspective, and it can sometimes be a challenge to balance this approach with consumer opinion.”
Sue McGovern, spokesperson for Organic Valley Family of Farms in LaFarge, Wis., says there is a definite need being met by organic dairy products. “Health conscious consumers are more aware of rBGH/rBST and they vote at the cash register to support products that are made without synthetic hormones,” she says.
Other manufacturers take a different tack when it comes to rBST. Errico Auricchio, president of Denmark, Wis.-based BelGioioso Cheese, says his company’s switch earlier this year away from milk produced with rBST was to accommodate the request one of the company’s largest customers. That customer, Auricchio says, was under pressure from consumers in the face of other cheesemakers touting their status as “rBST-free” (meaning made with milk from untreated cows; rBST isn’t in the milk). “It was a defensive move for us,” he says candidly. “I don’t think the cheese is any different with one or the other.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the issue, rBST is used by scores of dairy farmers around the country. According to figures published by St. Louis-based Monsanto Corp., the sole manufacturer of the commercial form of rBST sold under the name Posilac®, of the nearly 9 million dairy cows in the United States today about 35 percent are in herds supplemented with rBST. Monsanto also reports approximately 13,000 dairy producers use Posilac, which is sold in all 50 states and to farmers with small and large herds.
As far as independent studies go, there is not a lot of formal market research on consumer attitudes and preferences about dairy products made from cows treated with rBST.
Rosemont, Ill.-based Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) tracks consumer awareness of rBST as part of its twice-yearly surveys of fluid milk drinkers. “We ask people if they remember hearing stories in the media about hormones in milk. The most recent research showed that 11 percent of consumers said they claimed to recall stories on the negative effect of hormones in milk,” reports Stacey Stevens, director of nutrition affairs and communication, adding that the highest awareness levels date back to 1998, when they were around 18 to 19 percent.
In a more casual analysis, the case can be made that the marketplace is big enough to accommodate products made from processors that shun rBST and from those that have no problem with it. Most mainstream supermarkets include both types of products, while some organic brands are owned by parent companies that also sell milk from cows treated with growth hormones.
Ruland says the dairy industry is like other food and beverage categories in its range of options. “There is certainly room in the dairy case for choices, and we are very supportive of having consumers pick and choose what they are comfortable with,” she says.
Stevens agrees: “We would consider it a farmer’s choice in herd management.”
Evolutionary Matters
It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that choice in the dairy case meant something other than a particular variety, size or fat content. Indeed, to understand the current issue of rBST, it helps to frame it in some historical context.
The discussions over whether or not to use rBST got rolling when rBST was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993. Monsanto introduced Posilac the next year, accompanying the launch with a flurry of third-party studies and assessments. Before long, dairy farmers began using Posilac to supplement cows in order to increase milk production.
Other dairy producers, however, began to differentiate themselves by going rBST free — and telling customers about it up front. “We think legalization of the use of rBST was one of the primary catalysts to getting organic dairy off the ground,” Hirshberg says.
Indeed, it didn’t take long for some processors to pursue the non-rBST, and later organic, path. Cedar Grove Cheese, Plaine, Wis., responded almost immediately with an “rBGH-free” cheese shortly after the supplemental growth hormone went on the market. “We were trying when they were still in the trial stages. We were the first company to label products as rBGH free,” recalls president Bob Wills.
The issue over rBST remained stable for a few years, as dairies made their own decisions on its use. Industry groups like IDFA, NMPF, DMI and others fielded inquiries and provided information, while Monsanto presented its side and “rBST-free” brands put out more information on their labels, Web sites and other materials.
In 2000, the national spotlight shone on the issue once more. “About five years ago, one of the anti-dairy activists made a big deal over BST, and the FDA looked it over again,” Ruland says. “They said they stood by their decision and that the safety was there.”
Picking Sides
As evidenced by the occasional flare-up, the “to-use-or-not-to-use” question remains a hot-button one, even as consumers are making their own choices at the point of sale.
In one corner, there is the argument that rBST is a naturally occurring milk protein that does not have any impact on the final product in terms of health issues. The FDA, World Health Organization, American Medical Association and American Dietetic Association have concurred that milk from cows supplemented with rBST is the same product as it has always been.
The Center for Global Food Issues (CGFI) is a loud voice on that issue, with its “Milk is Milk” campaign and popular Internet blog. This coalition works to educate consumers and provide a base for countering negative claims about rBST. On its Web site, CGFI quotes Dr. Ruth Kava, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health, as saying “the simple truth is there is really no difference” between the two versions of milk.
Monsanto, for its part, stresses results from extensive, ongoing studies of Posilac. The company notes that the level of rBST stays the same in supplemented cows, with the extra hormone absorbed by the cow. The company also emphasizes that milk is tested throughout the food chain for safety.
Proponents of rBST also underscore the reason it was developed in the first place: enhanced production. According to Monsanto, more than 99 percent of producers using Posilac reported increases in milk production, citing productivity increases of eight to 12 pounds per cow per day.
In the other corner, those who have gone rBST-free make their case. “Growth hormones naturally occur in all milk, but some conventional dairy cows are injected with additional growth hormones to increase the amount of milk they produce. Countries in Europe, as well as Canada, Australia and Japan, have all banned the use of these hormones because of potential effects on both human and animal health,” says McLaughlin, who flips the question about science another way. “There is no scientific evidence to suggest that eating food produced with these added chemicals is good for us.”
Hirshberg, too, raises the question of real benefits. “I think people who haven’t taken an ‘anti’ position would like [the issue] to go away, because the problem all along is that it is not seen as a positive with consumers. It is still technically seen as a cost reducer, and that hasn’t even been proven,” he asserts, adding that feedback from Stonyfield customers indicates that health is a significant factor in their decision making. “We hear it constantly, that the principal concerns favored to organic are health, and that includes hormones and antibiotics.”
As part over consumer concerns about health, Hirshberg says, there is an overriding concern about modern food processing in general. “In many ways, synthetic BST is symptomatic for consumers of problems in our food system that they want to avoid. I can’t say that the average consumer, or even the organic consumer, can make a cogent argument why to have or not have BST,” he says. “Rather, they don’t want food messed around with, period.”
Hirshberg says concerns over health effects extend to animals as well. “If there is a poignant source of noise out there, it is animal-rights folks. It is known that rBST stresses animals, they don’t produce milk as long, they don’t live as long and they have decreased bone strength,” he says.
Wills emphasizes health issues are key, but are not the only factors driving interest in rBST-free products. “I find there is a really wide range. There are some people who buy it as a precautionary measure, who are thinking, ‘Why buy something that has been messed with?’” he says. “I also find some with philosophical or religious concerns, some with concerns about gene transfer technology and others with concerns about animal welfare impact.”
The Marketing Factor
In more recent times, the divide about rBST isn’t so much about science as it is marketing. How rBST-free products are positioned to consumers is a hotly contested topic. “I think that as organic marketers tried to position themselves using nomenclature like ‘no added hormones,’ some labeling claims were not always accurate,” Galen says.
The issue was contested legally when Monsanto filed a lawsuit in 2003 against Maine’s Oakhurst Dairy, charging the processor made unfair claims on its labels. Oakhurst eventually settled with the agrochemical giant and altered some of the language on its label.
The FDA has established guidelines for language to be used in labeling products made without rBST, advising that the use of claims like “hormone free” is misleading (because milk has naturally occurring hormones), and requiring a declaration that the agency has determined there is no difference in milk from treated or untreated cows.
IDFA, for its part, felt that move was fair. “On the topic of labeling, we have communicated that we are supportive of FDA guidelines on labeling,” Ruland says. “It has to do with language like ‘hormone free’ — that really isn’t accurate, because all milk has hormones, and there isn’t a health or safety concern regarding this.”
The CGFI coalition also expressed concerns about terminology used on labels. The group’s director of research and education, Alex Avery, dubbed the practice “predatory labeling,” charging that dairies using claims like “hormone free” or “pesticide free” are using false advertising to boost product sales. In fact, Avery’s Web site, www.stoplabelinglies.com, displays examples of what he describes as deceptive dairy labeling.
The label itself is just a part of the bigger — some might say thornier — issue of selling so-called “rBST-free” dairy products. “Where it tends to get murky is how you feel about negative marketing — when one says, ‘Mine is better than yours.’ We think positive messaging is better than negative,” says Ruland, who is quick to point out that IDFA’s role is to provide a forum for discussion on issues like labeling and marketing, not to promote one product type over another.
Among other reasons, negative marketing is discouraged because of the broader effect on the category, Ruland says. “The irony is that anything the consumer knows about this issue is what they’ve learned through marketers, which can be a dangerous way to learn about a scientific subject,” she says. “If you tell a consumer that there are hormones in the milk, they won’t want to drink it, but if you tell them the milk your grandmother and great-grandmother drank had hormones, that it has always had hormones, and there’s nothing wrong with that, they are surprised.”
Auricchio, whose BelGioioso Cheese made the leap to requesting its raw milk suppliers no longer use rBST, said competitive marketing was indeed a factor in the switch. “There are some people that use this ‘BGH free’ as a marketing tool to gain ground over other cheese producers, and since it sounds good to the ears of the consumer, they are easily swayed,” he says, adding that since going the rBST-free route, BelGioioso has not promoted it in a significant way in its marketing elements, including labels.
Similarly, the folks at Tillamook have said they don’t plan to incorporate rBST messages into their cheese packaging.
From another vantage point, those that sell rBST-free milk have a different opinion about label language. “The last thing the industry wanted was for us to draw it to people’s attention,” Hirshberg says, adding that Stonyfield follows all current labeling guidelines, even if other organic companies are still using terms like “no hormones.”
Wills says having to work through label language is laborious, especially considering that companies like his never altered their practices and that it is the farmers that now use rBST that made changes. “It is annoying,” he says. “It is the only product like that. Any other genetically modified product, you can list it on there.” Currently, packages of Cedar Grove cheeses include a front panel with the inscription, “rBGH-free.”
Although its product lines have always been rBST-free, Cedar Grove has recently added more organic products. Wills estimates about half of the company’s cheese is now certified organic, which he says may be a more effective way to position the company’s stance on rBST. “The advantage to organic is that it is much easier to explain and you don’t have variations on it across the states,” he says, citing the national organic standards and labeling guidelines.
Horizon Organic also uses an umbrella approach to marketing efforts for its organic product line. “Our consumer advertisements, milk cartons and other product packages, coupons, brochures and Web site always educate consumers about what it means to be organic,” McLaughlin says, adding that being free of added growth hormone is only part of that information, along with the use of pesticides and antibiotics.
Hirshberg, too, points to the halo effect of organic. “To be very precise, I think that people concerned about synthetic growth hormones are concerned about other things and constitute a broader audience,” he says. “Within the organic base, hormones are but one concern.”
According to Hirshberg, producers of organic dairy products are just as passionate as their buyers about the reasons behind making their choice. “We love the dairy industry and are deep believers in it,” he says. “We are just saddened that we haven’t as an industry gotten rid of this black eye.”
Ultimately, as Auricchio points out, no matter what reasons are behind a consumer’s choice of dairy products, the taste factor can never be ruled out. “Even with organic milk, you can make a lousy cheese,” he says. “In the end, the best quality will sell.”  
Lynn Petrak is a freelance journalist based in the Chicago area.
What Is It?
Bovine somatotropin (bST) is a hormone that is naturally produced by cows, directing how energy and nutrients are used for growth and milk production. Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is a synthesized copy of this naturally occurring hormone.