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CONSUMER AFFAIRS / DENISE GELLENE

'Organic Milk' Makes Debut Here

September 24, 1993|DENISE GELLENE

Californians can get their first taste of "organic milk" this week with the arrival of milk produced by Wisconsin dairy cows unexposed to artificial pesticides and antibiotics.

The Horizon brand organic milk is available in scattered natural foods stores and 121 Ralphs supermarkets. It comes with a hefty price tag of more than $2 a half-gallon--twice the price of other milk.

The company marketing the milk, Natural Horizons, said the retail price is higher because organic dairy farming is more costly than traditional methods. For example, feed costs are higher because cows eat grain untreated with pesticides, the company said.

The question for consumers is whether organic milk is worth the higher price. Federal law requires testing all milk for antibiotics before it is processed.

John Bruhn, dairy foods specialist at UC Davis, said the standards are strict. "I'm not sure you could detect a difference" between organic milk and other milk, Bruhn said.

What's more, the federal government conducts random tests for traces of the most widely used pesticides in milk. In 1992, the government said 93% of milk tested was pesticide-free. The remaining samples had traces of pesticides, but were still below levels considered safe, said Rob Byrne of the International Dairy Foods Assn., a Washington-based trade group.

How this compares to organic milk isn't known because Horizon doesn't test its milk for pesticide residue. "And we don't intend to," said Paul Repitto, vice president of Natural Horizons.

Experts say there is no need to worry about the safety of milk, considered by many to be essential to the health of young children.

"I have no concern about its safety," said Barbara Boardman, a Harvard pediatrician who participated in the National Academy of Sciences recent review of pesticides in food. "Regular milk is just fine by any scientific standard."

She added: "I hate for parents who can't afford it to feel badly about not giving their children a specialty product. Or for parents who can afford it to spend a half-hour driving across town to get it, instead of spending time with their children."

Natural Horizons argues that there are other reasons to drink organic milk. The company says it is kinder to the environment and to farm workers because artificial pesticides aren't used.

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They Don't Have All the Answers: The consumer organization Call for Action is distributing free brochures telling consumers how to shop with ATM, or debit, cards. It answers such questions as "How can I get one?" and "Why should I get one?"

The answers are pretty upbeat. But perhaps that is to be expected, since Visa USA, owner of one of the nation's largest ATM networks, paid for the brochure.

Shirley Rook, president of Washington-based Call for Action, said the brochure is educational and not a plug for the cards, which are accepted at supermarkets, gas stations and some fast-food outlets. "There's a lot of misinformation about debit cards," she said. "We're not trying to convince people to use them."

Still, the brochure, titled "A Convenient Alternative to Cash & Checks," has a persuasive tone. It advises people to use debit cards instead of cash and checks "for everyday purchases," and gives seven reasons why people should get one. A few of those reasons: peace of mind, privacy, convenience.

What's missing is an answer to the question: "What are the costs?" While the brochure mentions that banks charge transaction fees, it doesn't help consumers evaluate them.

California's largest banks charge a monthly fee of $1.50 for the use of debit cards, and some merchants tack on an additional charge of up to 50 cents for each transaction. This means that checks, and of course cash, may be cheaper than debit cards for some people.

Rook said the brochure doesn't compare banks' fees on debit card transactions and checks because they vary. "We can't answer every question," she said.

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Alleged Profit Motive: The California attorney general's office has filed a civil suit against Consumer Debt Management and its president, charging, among other things, that the Anaheim-based credit repair firm is not a nonprofit corporation.

As reported in The Times last spring, credit repair companies in the state have been seeking not-for-profit status from the Internal Revenue Service to avoid paying a $100,000 bond and meeting other financial restrictions imposed under a new state law. Consumer Debt Management received its not-for-profit status in April, four months after the new law took effect.

Consumer Debt Management refused to comment on the charges and said that Ray Reynolds, identified in the lawsuit as the company's president, quit two weeks ago. Reynolds could not be reached.

The state contends that Consumer Debt Management is not being run as a charity and that it charges a "substantial" $500 to $1,000 to "repair" credit reports issued by TRW, Equifax and other credit bureaus.

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