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Safeway Giving the Boot to Milk from Hormone-Injected Cows

Milk suppliers to Safeway's Northwest processing plants have stopped using an artificial growth hormone under fire by some consumer groups, the grocery chain said Thursday.

The grocer's announcement comes days after Starbucks confirmed that milk products in its company-owned coffee shops in Oregon and Washington are free of recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH.

The artificial hormone is injected into dairy cows to make them produce more milk. It has been tied to increased udder infections and the resulting antibiotic use by dairies, and it has raised fears of greater cancer risks among humans. Monsanto Co. markets rBGH under the brand name Posilac.

Monsanto and many dairy farmers who want increased yields from their herds contend that milk from cows treated with the hormone is identical to that from untreated cows.

In the past two years, however, major dairy names in the Northwest, starting with the Tillamook County Creamery Association, have been falling like dominoes on the hormone issue. The association's members upheld a ban on injecting cows with the hormone in a hotly contested vote in March 2005.

The issue resonates with consumers such as Nancy Pulone, a Beaverton mother of two who frequently buys organic milk and produce.

"There's just not enough long-term information that use of this hormone is going to be safe for my children," she said.

Teena Massingill, a Safeway spokeswoman, said some milk jugs in stores already carry labels proclaiming them free of the artificial hormone. All the chain's fluid milk products under its Lucerne brand are expected to carry the labels in the next few months, she said.

"Consumers in the Portland and Seattle area have been very vocal about the issue of rBGH," she said. "So this is basically a response to customer concerns."

Safeway's decision affects milk supplied to processing plants in Clackamas, Ore., and Bellevue, Wash. Those plants process and package milk circulated in more than 100 Oregon stores and about 170 in Washington, as well as stores in Idaho and Alaska.

The Oregon chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility has led the fight against the artificial hormone in the Northwest. Rick North, who has run the physicians' campaign, has made presentations to companies and coordinated letter-writing by individuals.

North said the only remaining major milk processor in Oregon without a ban on rBGH is Fred Meyer -- a contention disputed by the chain.

Melinda Merrill, a Fred Meyer spokeswoman, said that for the past several years the company has requested -- and received -- assurances from its suppliers that they are not using the hormone.

Merrill said the company has chosen not to label its products as free of the artificial hormone because that might lead consumers to think the milk they had bought previously was inferior.

Unlike Safeway and Tillamook, Fred Meyer does not require its milk suppliers to sign a sworn statement that they are not injecting cows with the hormone.