Wall Street Journal on Organic Milk and the Bovine Growth Hormone Issue

A New Twist in the Organic Milk Debate

December 10, 2005; Page P14

Picking out a carton of milk at the supermarket, one of life's simpler
purchases, is getting more complicated. Consumers are buying a lot more
organic milk, with its promise of purity -- no harmful pesticides, no
antibiotics, no dangerous hormones. Now conventional milk producers are
trying to convince consumers that their product is, well, just the same.

Tammy Coxen of Ann Arbor, Mich., says she spends $7.50 a gallon for organic
milk for her 18-month-old son because she believes it is free of
contaminants present in standard $3-a-gallon milk. Consumers like her have
made organic milk a $322 million business, up 126% since 2000, while sales
of all milk have been flat, according to market analyst Mintel Group.

To fight back, conventional-milk interests are using two strategies. The
first: If you can't beat them, join them -- more or less. Last month,
Alpenrose Dairy in Portland, Ore., pledged to stop using rbGH, a synthetic
hormone that stimulates milk production and isn't used by organic dairies.
Alpenrose is revamping its packaging to promote the new policy. The move
follows similar pledges by two other Oregon dairies -- Eberhard's Dairy
Products, which is advertising its new policy on the radio, and the
Tillamook County Creamery Association.

The second strategy is promoting the idea that there is no difference
between organic and nonorganic milk. Take the Web site Milk Is Milk,
operated by the Center for Global Food Issues, a division of Hudson
Institute, a nonprofit that gets some funding from agricultural biotech
companies. Last month, the site reported that a recent Swiss study of
organic and conventional dairies found that organic milk is no more
nutritious. Jurg Blum, a researcher involved in the study at Bern
University, confirms this but says they did not look at antibiotic and
pesticide residues.

For its part, the Organic Consumers Association, a nonprofit in Finland,
Minn., that gets some funding from organic food companies, says the review
by the Food and Drug Administration concluding that rbGH is safe was not
thorough enough. (The FDA says its rbGH review was comprehensive.) And, says
OCA, organic dairy farmers use only "not toxic" pesticides and no
antibiotics, so their milk is free of harmful residues.

So is all milk, retorts Robert Byrne, a spokesman for the National Milk
Producers Federation, which represents conventional and some organic dairy
farmers. The FDA requires milk to be tested and does not permit antibiotic
or pesticide residues above minuscule levels.

So are there differences between types of milk? Last month, the Agriculture
Department announced that in January it will seek public comment on a
proposal to require organic cattle to feed on pasture grass for some period
of time. Many scientists agree that milk from cattle that eat grass can be
different from other milk -- it tends to be higher in certain healthy fats.
So if the new rules require organic dairy farmers, unlike conventional
farmers, to pasture-feed, there may be a measurable difference between
organic and conventional milk. Until then, it is open to debate.