That's not the latest space critter in a George Lucas film. It's a synthetic growth hormone (recombinant bovine somatotropin) used to spur cows to produce more milk. Many dairies and retailers - including General Mills (GIS), Dannon and Wal-Mart (WMT) - are nixing it from dairy products in a world of rising food fears.
Even in a sick economy, low price isn't the only hot sales tool for foods. There's also marketing value in telling consumers about some ingredients not in foods. "Companies do bow to the will of consumers," says Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm, which has never used synthetic hormones.
In a nation of food worriers, the move by the $110 billion dairy industry is overdue, nutrition guru Marion Nestle says. "Why screw around with milk, of all things?" asks the author of What to Eat.
The move away from rbST comes at a time consumer concern about food quality is on the rise. Since last year's salmonella outbreak, 45% of Americans say they are even more concerned about food safety, according to a survey of 1,000 consumers by researcher TNS Global.
While the Food and Drug Administration says there are no health risks to humans from rbST, there are studies that indicate the synthetic may harm dairy cows. [Despite what the FDA says, there IS evidence that rbST harms people, too.] (All cows produce natural bST hormone.) Monsanto, which had made rbST, sold the business to Eli Lilly last year.
"RbST has been used safely for 15 years and has contributed to the affordability of dairy products worldwide," Lilly spokeswoman Joan Todd says. She says its effects reduce the carbon footprint for the dairy cow by about 9%.
The use of synthetic growth hormones in dairy cows is prohibited in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and many European countries.
Among those dropping rbST:
•General Mills. The maker of Yoplait yogurt announced plans last month to phase it out by August. "While the safety of milk from cows treated with rbST is not an issue, our consumers are expressing a preference for milk from cows not treated with rbST," marketing chief Becky O'Grady says.
•Dannon. The dairy giant says it will eliminate rbST before the end of the year. "We are listening to customers," spokesman Michael Neuwirth says. He says the company receives a few dozen e-mails a month from consumers on the topic.
•Wal-Mart. Last year, the retailer said its store brand, Great Value, has eliminated rbST.
•Fresh & Easy. The grocer's milk has never contained rbST, but it's now aired radio ads noting the fact, spokesman Roberto Munoz says. "We've done focus groups, and people don't want it."
Companies Cut Synthetic Hormone from Dairy Products
By Bruce Horowitz
USA Today, March 15, 2009
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