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Hormone-free milk sales stir heated debate

Demand is growing. But critics contend that shoppers are paying more with no benefit.

January 19, 2007|From Reuters

KANSAS CITY, MO. — Five years ago, dairy farmer Leroy Shatto was struggling to stay in business. Today, his herd has more than doubled amid a surge in demand for his product. The difference: a marketing campaign touting Shatto milk as free of artificial hormones.

Osborn, Mo.-based Shatto milk comes plain or flavored, but all comes from cows free of the genetically engineered hormone supplements that many conventional dairies give cows to boost their milk production.

"That is what the consumers want now," said Shatto, who runs a small family farm of 220 cows. "People are demanding this stuff not to be in their milk. If I had 100 more cows tomorrow, I still couldn't keep caught up with demand."

Corporate backers and consumer activists have been battling for more than a decade over whether an artificial growth hormone given to dairy cows, known as rbST or rBGH, is harmful to human and animal health.

The debate has taken a marked turn over the last several months as a growing number of dairy producers and food industry players have begun demanding rbST-free milk, citing heightened consumer demand and new niche marketing opportunities.

"We're not making any moral judgments. It is about giving consumers what they want," said Marguerite Copel, spokeswoman for Dean Foods Co., the nation's largest milk processor and distributor.

Milk marketed as free of artificial growth hormones is not considered organic because it does not meet other criteria. But it still commands a premium price of $1.50 or more per half-gallon over conventional milk on grocery shelves.

Dallas-based Dean Foods has pushed producers in at least 15 U.S. markets to stop using the hormones, and similar moves are being evaluated around the country, Copel said. Hood, another major U.S. milk company based in Midlothian, Va., also has announced a switch.

Earlier this week, Seattle-based Starbucks Corp. said it was working with dairy suppliers to shift to rBGH-free milk products in its coffeehouses.

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., a leading developer of biotech crops, is the sole producer of the artificial hormone supplement, which it brands as Posilac. The supplement is produced through recombinant DNA technology and is referred to as rBGH for recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rbST for recombinant bovine somatotropin.

The company began selling FDA-approved Posilac in 1994 as a tool for boosting milk production in cows and says the milk cannot be distinguished from milk from cows that don't receive the supplement. Suppliers who label milk as indicating there is a difference are misleading consumers, Monsanto said.

Back in Missouri, Shatto is less concerned with the makeup of the milk than with making customers happy. "People are just loving this stuff," he said.

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