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Milk shoppers get a new choice – kinda organic

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2006


It "does a body good" and can leave a funny white mustache. But few shoppers invest much thought into milk beyond whole, low-fat, or skim.

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That's changing. A new choice is hitting shelves: milk from cows not injected with artificial growth hormones. This option – long a selling point for organic labels – is increasingly offered by mainstream brands.

Organic milk requires different cow feeds, among other things, that sharply raise the price. Cutting out growth hormones is a cheap step toward organic, but it's not organic.

The trend is strongest in New England, where the new option sells for about a half-dollar more than conventional milk but still about two dollars below organic. This fall, two regional giants, HP Hood and Garelick, announced that more of their plants won't take milk from cows injected with the hormone. Major labels on the West Coast and in Arizona, New Jersey, and Texas have made the same move. And Vermont's agricultural commissioner this month urged dairy farmers to drop the practice that has been widely used since 1994 to boost milk yields.

The shift demonstrates the growing impact of the organic movement – not necessarily in market share but in mind share. The sight of organic food on supermarket shelves has prompted consumer concern about quality and safety, both in products themselves and during production. Processors say this new product addresses those concerns, but many farmers and scientists argue that the companies are simply bottling fear for profit.

"Everyone recognizes that there's a lot of demand for organic now and in all foods, not just dairy," says Chris Galen, spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Arlington, Va. "Retailers [want] a product that can compete."

Nothing could be more frustrating for eighth-generation dairy man Eric Clifford and his wife, Jane. They rely on growth hormone to make ends meet with their 350-cow business in Starksboro, Vt.

"They're trying to tell the consumer that there's a difference when there is no difference," says Mr. Clifford, on his dairy farm. Alongside him, a computer tracks the amount of white liquid – the farm's literal revenue stream – squeezed from each cow in a brown barn next door.

The Cliffords can extend the number of days their cows give milk with rBST, a synthetic version of a growth hormone present in all cows to varying degrees. The net gain for the Cliffords is an extra $45,000 to $50,000 a year. That's critical for a New England dairy business squeezed by profits that have remained flat since the late '70s, says Mr. Clifford. High fuel prices will cause the farm to lose money this year.

"My issue comes to having a tool in a tool box that has been approved, and that is managed, and fits my business model, being taken away because of someone's misperception of it," says Mrs. Clifford.

Most dairy scientists concur that the FDA-approved injections are safe, according to William Condon, a bovine endocrinologist. In fact, he says, there is no test to tell the difference between milk from cows injected with rBST and milk from those that aren't. Farmers are asked to sign a pledge in lieu of a cost-effective testing regime. Milk from a cow with naturally higher levels of hormones would be identical to milk from a cow boosted to the same level with additional hormone shots, he says.