STARKSBORO, VT. — 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.
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.
"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.
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."