Milk shoppers get a new choice – kinda organic
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"The public is afraid of the word 'hormone,' so when they think the milk contains no hormones they'll pay extra money. All milk contains hormones," says Mr. Condon, a professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.Skip to next paragraph
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However, rBST has critics. "There are a whole host of differences" between the milk of cows receiving growth hormones and that of cows that aren't, says Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.
For one, injected cows are more likely to experience mastitis, an udder infection, he says. The disease and the antibiotics used to treat it contaminate the milk of these cows, he adds. Farmers counter that cows must be removed from the milk supply during treatment for the infection.
For another, rBST milk contains high levels of IGF-1, a natural growth factor. Dr. Epstein, author of a new book "What's in Your Milk?," points to research that shows an association between high IGF-1 levels in humans and certain cancers. Other scientists say no direct link between milk and cancer has been proved.
Condon notes human breast milk also has high levels of IGF-1, but "we don't go around telling people not to drink [human] breast milk because it contains higher levels of IGF-1," Condon adds.
Critics like Dr. Epstein, as well as doubtful consumers, also point to bans in Europe, Canada, and Japan for some validation of their concerns.
Milk processors shy away from the debate, preferring to emphasize that it's consumers who have concerns.
"We don't believe there is a difference in the milk, but ... more consumers are asking us to do that, so we knew we needed to do something," says Lynne Bohan, spokeswoman for HP Hood of Chelsea, Mass.
Ms. Bohan says consumer research reveals that the No. 1 reason for buying organic is concern over hormones. But it's still a minority worry. Only 30 percent of all consumers have even heard about the hormone issues, and of those, 70 percent say it doesn't concern them, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.
Organic milk accounts for only 4 percent of sales, but demand outstrips supply by about 40 percent, according to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. The group says that by the end of 2007, organic production capacity in New England will double.
Oakhurst, a processor in Maine, decided early on to avoid rBST milk. "That allowed our company to provide some of the benefits of organic milk without the cost difference," says Stan Bennett, president of the Portland-based company. The choice, he says, also gave the company increased market share over other non-organic competitors.
"Underlying all of this is the whole idea that ... milk has been a nameless, faceless market for years. Basically, [processors] are all selling essentially the same product, so how are they going to differentiate their brand?" says Mr. Galen.
"Really, at the end of the day, this is just marketing."