BY TOM WEBB
September 23, 2006
Sales on rise years after dairy hormone controversy
For more than a decade, government and agribusiness have declared cow's milk with artificial growth hormones to be perfectly safe. But more and more, America's new moms aren't buying it.
Sales of milk free of genetically engineered hormones are showing impressive growth, even as overall milk sales remain flat. At the vanguard of the trend, analysts say, are new mothers who are especially vigilant about the first foods they give their babies and toddlers.
Their protectiveness has helped boost sales of organic milk by 25 percent a year. But lately, they've also revived a fading product line — conventional milk from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones, which is sold locally under brands like Kemps Select and Land O'Lakes Original.
That revival has been a bit of a surprise, since it's been 13 years since the big public controversy over a genetically engineered dairy hormone, called bovine somatotropin or rBST. Farmers began using rBST in 1993 to boost milk production. Initially, dairies worried about consumer resistance and carefully segregated their milk lines. But then the controversy faded, and demand for non-rBST milk almost disappeared.
"It never gained much of a market share, and in fact, it was so small a market share, that many of them (regional dairies) quit making it," said Bob Cropp, a dairy specialist at the University of Wisconsin.
But now, it's back, even if dairies still hesitate to promote it for fear of casting shadows on their other milk products.
And look who's buying.
Ann Mayer, a young mother in St. Paul, says she isn't particularly choosy about her own food, but she's very careful about what she buys for her 2-year-old, Luke, even if it means paying more.
"There's other things you can scrimp on, but I think what we feed our kids is kind of a basis for life," Mayer said.
Mayer chooses organic foods for her toddler, and buys both organic milk and conventional Land O'Lakes milk from cows not treated with rBST. "I just won't buy the other stuff," she said. "Luckily, these days, you don't have to go too far out of the way to do it. The stores all have that available, which is nice."
Blaine Becker, a spokesman for the marketing research firm The Hartman Group, says that more than any other food, milk carries powerful associations of wholesomeness, health and new life.
"One of the key reasons people make a switch is that they're driven by something in their lives," Becker said. "For many people, it's having a first child, and obviously wanting what's best for them. That's why milk and dairy products become central and are often gateways into organic foods in general."
Most milk produced without rBST does not qualify as organic, but all organic milk is rBST-free. That's a big part of its appeal, he said.
"In dairy, what they're looking for is the absence of something — the absence of growth hormones, or the absence of pesticides," Becker added. "They're looking for things that are safer and better in their minds."
That mindset, however, rankles some in the dairy industry, who see rBST as a perfectly safe alternative, and have a raft of scientific studies to back up the claim. That leaves mainstream milk processors trying to promote the product without hurting their other milk sales.
"Every milk product that we offer is fresh and wholesome," said Rachel Kyllo, a spokesperson for Kemps, where sales of rBST-free whole milk have soared 55 percent in the past year, according to data provided by market research firm Information Resources Inc. "We simply want to provide consumers with that choice."
At Lunds and Byerly's grocery stores, the store brand of rBST-free milk was introduced only in 2003 but already accounts for 25 percent of its milk sales, officials said.
Those sales are growing in spite of every carton explicitly saying, "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST treated and non-rBST treated cows."
It costs more, too, although the difference is pretty small for new parents who've been writing checks for infant formula. While organic milk costs roughly twice the price of conventional milk, rBST-free milk often sells for just 10 to 15 percent more.
"What's happened is that there is such a shortage of organic milk that it has driven the price of organics very high," said Kyllo, the Kemps spokeswoman. "And the Kemps Select milk offers the benefits of being free of any artificial hormones … so from the price/value standpoint, it's a much more affordable option."
Chemical giant Monsanto is the sole maker of rBST, sold to dairy farmers as Posilac, which mimics and supplements the natural hormones found in dairy cows. Monsanto spokesman Andrew Burchett walked through the math. A cow injected with Posilac experiences a two-week boost in milk production of about 10 pounds a day, or a total of 140 additional pounds of milk. At current prices, that means the farmer can sell an extra $17 of milk, while an injection costs about $6.
"There's no difference in the milk," Burchett said. "It's just as nutritious and wholesome and healthy as all other milk, and in fact, there's no way to actually detect a difference in milk from cows supplemented with Posilac."
He added, "What I think is most important here is, the milk is the same, consumers potentially will have to pay more, and farmers will lose money" if they can't use a profitable production method.
Bea James, director of organic and natural programs for Edina-based Lunds Food Holdings, which runs the Lunds and Byerly's chains, understands that consumers are guided by a complex web of economics, emotions, appetites and intangibles. She remembers asking one customer why she was buying both rBST-free milk and conventional milk.
"She said, 'I have four small children at home, and I definitely want my children to be drinking the hormone-free milk — but I couldn't care less what my husband and I drink'," James recalled.
"That's something we see a lot in our stores, young families with children seem to be strong consumers with this in their cart."
Tom Webb can be reached at 651-228-5428 or firstname.lastname@example.org.