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Dairy co-op to drop hormone

The major milk supplier is phasing out use of a synthetic compound that boosts production.

March 08, 2007|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Under pressure from supermarket chains and their customers, California cows are going drug-free.

The giant Central Valley dairy co-op that produces 4 of every 10 glasses of milk drunk by Californians is phasing out the use of a synthetic bovine growth hormone that increases how much milk cows produce.

Despite evidence that the rBST hormone doesn't harm humans, California Dairies Inc. said its biggest customers such as Vons and Safeway didn't want it in the cows. The co-op also supplies brands such as Foster Farms, Knudsen Farms and Producers Dairy.

The demand for milk from these hormone-free cows is part of a nationwide consumer swing toward products that are either labeled organic or are perceived to be more natural. "That's a good decision as far as I'm concerned," said David Callahan, a self-employed artist from Eagle Rock who was shopping in Glendale. "The milk I buy is always free of hormones and preferably is organic. It's a big issue with me."

The dairy co-op has to comply if it wants to keep its customers, Chief Executive Richard Cotta said. "Demand for this milk has exceeded our ability to supply it." The phaseout of the hormone made by Monsanto Co., the St. Louis-based chemical giant, will be in effect Aug. 1.

Starbucks, one of the nation's largest sellers of milk, has stopped using milk from cows injected with the hormone from more than a third of its establishments and plans to gradually increase that to at least half of its U.S. company-operated coffeehouses.

Other large players in the dairy industry such as Oregon's Tillamook County Creamery Assn. and Dean Foods Co. are also winding down its use.

Shoppers at the Smart & Final on Verdugo Road in Glendale on Wednesday generally voiced concern about whether milk from cows injected with the hormone was a threat to their health. "I'm interested in my health," said Mike Metzler, a Glendale publisher. "I never buy milk with bovine growth hormone in it."

Food safety advocates and academics say there is no scientific evidence that milk from cows injected with the compound is any different from that of heifers free of the hormone. "There has been no real evidence of a health impact from milk from cows treated with the hormone," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.

Jerry Gillespie, director of the Western Institute for Food Safety and Security at UC Davis, said, "The idea that it might be harmful has not gone away among the public even though it doesn't bear the light of science."

That's one reason sales of organic or natural milk products have grown 20% annually and now make up almost 5% of what's sold, said Jerry Dryer, a Delray Beach, Fla., industry consultant.

Companies such as Dean Foods, with its Alta Dena division, have marketed their beverages as coming from farms that don't use the hormone. This gives the impression that consumers are avoiding a risk that in reality "doesn't exist," said Christine Bruhn, a UC Davis food-science marketing specialist. The synthetic hormone, however, is banned in much of Europe, where it is considered an animal welfare issue because of some evidence that it makes cows more prone to illness.

Shopper Metzler is hoping that the switch by the largest dairy co-op in the state will mean greater availability and less expensive milk from cows that are not injected with the hormone.

At the Glendale Ralphs on Wednesday, half a gallon of house-brand whole milk sold for $1.99. That compared with $2.99 for the same-size carton of Alta Dena hormone-free milk and a sale price of $3.19 for Horizon organic milk.

Unlabeled milk might or might not come from farms that use the hormone. There is no labeling requirement forcing producers to disclose the information. Anywhere from a quarter to more than a third of California's dairies use the compound to increase production, according to industry estimates.

About 20% of the co-op's 680 dairies use the hormone, which can increase how much milk a heifer produces daily by 5% to 15%, depending on the animal.

Farmers in the co-op will still have the choice of whether to use the hormone. But if they do, California Dairies is going to charge extra handling fees to sell that milk. That expense and the cost of the hormone are expected to all but end the hormone's use.

"I have stood on the sidelines since it came out and never thought it was worth the expense," Sid Sybrandy, a co-op member who has a 1,000-cow dairy farm in San Jacinto, said of the hormone.

Sybrandy said any increased production wasn't worth the expense of the drug and the extra wear he saw in the animals.

"If it is 40 cents a cow per day, times 1,000 cows, it's $400. After a month, it is an extra $12,000," Sybrandy said. "The dairy industry would have been better off if the product would have never been used. We all would have made more money."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

Times staff writer Martin Zimmerman contributed to this report.

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