FRESNO-Consumer groups are applauding a major dairy cooperative's decision to dissuade its farmers from using a synthetic hormone to coax more milk from cows, a move some insiders say could have a ripple effect across the dairy industry.
Members of California Dairies Inc., which ships over 14 billion pounds of milk annually, must stop injecting their herds with the genetically engineered hormone rBST by Aug. 1 or face having to pay a premium for the co-op to truck their milk to alternative markets.
RBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, is banned in Canada and Europe, mostly over concerns that it makes cows more prone to illness.
On Jan. 23, the co-op's board of directors told its 650 members they would stop accepting milk from herds treated with the growth hormone and from cloned cows.
"We're merely responding to our customers' demands and we've gotten very strong support," said Richard Cotta, the group's CEO and president.
The Food and Drug Administration approved rBST to boost production in dairy cows in 1993, making it one the first major biotechnology-related products to enter the national food supply.
But many organic farmers and animal welfare organizations remain skeptical that milk from hormone-treated cows is safe for human consumption. Some major U.S. producers, like Oregon's Tillamook County Creamery Association, have forbidden its use.
Consumer organizations that question the hormone's safety lauded California Dairies' new policy, saying it would help make healthy dairy products widely available. The co-op owns Challenge Dairy Products, Inc. and sells milk to Safeway Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc.
"We're very grateful that (California Dairies) is taking this very significant step," said Rick North, a project director at the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, which campaigns nationally for rBST-free products. "If dairy farmers want to preserve their business and not lose customers, they will be in the front of this trend."
The new policy won't impact California's milk supply long term, because dairy farmers can also boost their herd's output by increasing feed rations or the number of milkings, said Mike Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen.
But the co-op's smaller members who are struggling to get a few more gallons of milk from their least productive cows could take a hit, he said.
St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which markets rBST under the brand name Posilac, stands to lose from the co-op's decision.
"It's a concern when U.S. farmers are denied access to approved technologies that are going to help them make money," said Andrew Burchett, a Monsanto spokesman. "It's also a concern that milk that is no different is being disparaged by deceptive marketing."
Nationally, consumer groups say about 15 to 20 percent of dairy cows are injected with rBST. The hormone is still applied regularly in California, the nation's No. 1 dairy state, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Large California Dairy Coop Bans Injection of Cows with Monsanto's Bovine Growth Hormone
By Garance Burke
Associated Press, Mar 9, 2007
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