rBGH-free trend sheds light on genetically engineered food

Kroger is latest company to ban use of controversial GE hormone in milk production

When it comes to genetically engineered (GE) foods, most Americans eat in the dark. Surveys consistently show that a majority of Americans are unaware that more than 70% of processed foods they eat contain ingredients from GE corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton.

However, Americans are increasingly aware of one GE product in their food, and they don’t like it. And the food industry is responding. Food retail giant Kroger recently announced that by February 2008 all its processed milk will be from cows not injected with a genetically engineered growth hormone known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) or rBGH.

Tipping point
Kroger’s announcement is the latest indication of an rBGH-free trend sweeping the nation’s dairy industry. The number of dairies using the hormone is dropping dramatically. All milk produced in Oregon is now rBGH-free. Other rBGH-free dairy producers include Wilcox Dairy in Washington, Great Plains Dairy in North Dakota, Darigold Farms and Meadow Gold in Montana, Associated Food Stores in Utah, Sinton Dairy in Colorado, Promised Land Dairy in Texas, Kleinpeter Farms Dairy in Louisiana, Byrne Dairy in New York, Rutter’s and Swiss Premium dairies in Pennsylvania, Garelick Farms in New Jersey, and H.P. Hood in Massachusetts. And these are just a few companies.

Major companies are banning the hormone. Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor, has converted to rBGH-free production in several of its New England facilities, and grocery giant Safeway has done the same in Washington and Oregon. In May, Publix Super Markets, with 900 stores in the South—hardly a hotbed of anti-genetic engineering activism—went rBGH-free in its branded milk products. California Dairies, which produces 8% of the milk supplied in the US, banned the use of rBGH this past August.

The trend isn’t limited to dairies. Starbucks plans to transition to rBGH-free milk in all its stores by the end of the year. Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill is serving only rBGH-free sour cream in all of its 530 or more restaurants.

Then there are organic dairy companies, who are required to not use genetically engineered products like rBGH. Organic milk is now nearly a $1 billion per year industry and growing 14% per year.

As Rick North, project director, Program for Safe Food at Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, says, “A helluva lot of dairies have gone organic or rBGH-free since 2002.

Like “steroids for athletes”
All these dairies are going rBGH-free for one reason: consumers don’t want genetically engineered hormones in their milk. The dairies say they are simply responding to this demand. Kroger based its rBGH-free decision on customer feedback. Publix’s director of media and community relations, Maria Brous, said, “We wanted our customers to enjoy the wholesome goodness of milk, without added hormones.”

Consumers are also willing to pay more for milk labeled rBGH-free, according to several studies, including one published last year in the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

Controversy has surrounded rBGH, the creation of Monsanto Company, since it was approved by the FDA in 1994. An estimated 20% of dairy cows in the United States are injected with rBGH to increase milk production. While the FDA says the hormone is safe and doesn’t affect milk quality, consumer groups claim that milk from cows injected with rBGH contains high levels of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), which is considered a potent tumor promoter. A Canadian study found that rBGH significantly increased the risks of mastitis, failure to conceive, and lameness in cows. As a result, rBGH is banned in Canada and Europe. New Hampshire’s commissioner of agriculture Stephen H. Taylor has likened rBGH to “steroids for athletes.”

Misleading consumers?
Dairy producers inform consumers that their products are rBGH-free with label statements such as, “No rBGH in our products mean better and healthier cows” or “Our Farmers’ Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones.”

Monsanto despises the labels, has sued some companies that use them, and now wants the FDA and Federal Trade Commission to crack down on them. The company recently sent letters to the agencies stating, “For years now, deceptive milk labeling practices have misled consumers about the quality, safety, or value of milk and milk products from cows supplemented with rBGH.” Monsanto goes so far as to claim that the rBGH-free labels “present a serious regulatory and public health concern.”

Doesn’t Monsanto realize that many consumers view rBGH as a “public health concern?”

North says Monsanto is complaining because the rBGH-free trend is hitting them where it hurts—the bottom line. “Monsanto is getting clobbered in the marketplace because dairies nationwide are going rBGH-free,” he says.

Shedding light on GE foods
The rBGH-free trend is happening despite the fact that the US, unlike the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Ukraine, Switzerland, Norway, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, doesn’t require labeling of genetically engineered foods.

So, you won’t find a milk carton with a label that says, “produced from cows treated with rBGH.” US dairy processors that use the hormone prefer that consumers don’t know.

Meanwhile, dairy processors and other companies committed to GE-free food production must resort to “negative” labels, which state that a product is “rBGH-free” or “non-GMO.”

Monsanto and the majority of US food companies prefer that Americans continue to eat genetically engineered foods in the dark. They are afraid, and rightly so, that if a little light is shed on GE food, Americans will reject them, which is happening with rBGH.

“The more consumers know about this, the less they want it,” says North.

© Copyright The Organic & Non-GMO Report September 2007.