Milking The Retail Market

February 8, 2008
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BYRON CENTER — Dairy farmers in Kent County are bidding adieu to an artificial bovine hormone that boosts milk production, in response to retailers’ market demands.

Spartan Stores announced last week that it has begun selling Spartan brand milk that comes from cows free of recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST. Cows injected with the hormone can produce milk almost twice as long as they naturally would after the birth of a calf.

“This is a national direction that’s being taken due to consumer input on these artificial growth hormones,” Spartan spokeswoman Jeanne Norcross said. “We’ve been working with our producers to convert Spartan brand milk so it is rBST-free.”

Michigan Milk Producers Association and Dairy Farmers of America, two major dairy marketing cooperatives in the state, have asked members to sign statements saying they would no longer inject their cows with rBST.

MMPA, with about 1,500 member farms in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, has seen 99 percent sign a membership certification agreement, said public affairs director Sheila Burkhardt.

Dairy Farmers of America, with 350 Michigan member farms, gave them until Dec. 31 to sign affidavits stating that they would no longer inject their cows with rBST, DFA spokeswoman Heather Schofield said. Ninety-five percent complied, she said. Another 200 Michigan farms are members of the closely associated Dairy Marketing Services. They were asked to sign the affidavits or DMS would no longer market their milk, she said.

Local farmers in Michigan’s nearly $1 billion dairy industry had mixed reactions.

“We’re pretty disappointed to see this is being taken away,” said Annie Link, who runs tours of her family’s dairy farm, Swisslane Farms near Alto. Swisslane has decided to continue using the artificial hormone, shipping its milk to an out-of-state yogurt plant.

At Jason Bradford’s dairy farm near Sparta, milk production has dropped since he stopped using rBST as of the Dec. 31 deadline.

“It was kind of taken away not based on scientific data, but just by people’s perceptions of it,” Bradford said. “When we started using it six years ago, I had some feelings against it. Then when we started using it, we saw nothing but benefits to us and the cows, too.”

The hormone was controversial from the start, said Prof. Christopher Wolf, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University. The artificial hormone was extensively tested prior to federal Food and Drug Administration approval in 1993, and has been on the market since 1994, he said. Testing since then has revealed no difference in hormone levels in milk from rBST-treated cows and untreated cows, he said.

“The hormones aren’t in the milk, they’re in the cows,” Wolf said. “There is no evidence there is any food safety issue.”

But consumer groups, particularly in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, have continued to press the issue, he said. That’s given impetus for retailers to tap into the surge of consumer interest in environmentally friendly and organic products, he added.

“Part of it is timing,” Wolf said. “There’s lots more demand for organic and natural foods. But it just doesn’t pay to produce organic milk. …Certain processors and retailers started looking to capture the organic-type demand, saying we can go rBST-free and charge a higher price, and we don’t have to go all the way to organic.”

For Michigan, the rBST-free move actually began last year in the southeastern U.S., where Kroger and Publix supermarkets are fierce competitors. Publix began selling milk from rBST-free cows in May, and Kroger responded by announcing in August that the entire chain would be selling milk from rBST-free cows by Feb. 1.

Now Spartan is following suit. Kroger has 138 stores in Michigan, although none are in Grand Rapids. However, Kroger, Meijer Inc. and Spartan Stores compete in markets outside Grand Rapids. Meijer did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Wolf said rBST is typically most efficiently used on large herds of 200 or more, and that about 40 percent to 50 percent of cows on any particular farm are injected. About 40 percent of milk produced in Michigan is sold as fluid milk, while the rest is made into other dairy products such as cheese and sour cream.

Opponents argue that the additional months of milking increase the incidence of mastitis and the use of antibiotics to cure it. Others argue that cows have a longer life on rBST, since it delays the day they are sold for slaughter.

“The farmers that were using it, it’s going to cost them some money,” Wolf said. “There were a lot of farms using it profitably, and they are going to forgo that profit. They’re not very happy about it. Nobody likes to be told what to do. The guys using it, their viewpoint tends to be it’s safe, so people just shouldn’t worry about it. It’s going to hurt their bottom line.”

Processors have offered farmers a small premium for dropping rBST use, but it’s unlikely to be enough to offset the loss from a 10 percent or more slack in production, he added.

Norcross said consumers may see a “slight increase” in milk prices.

Link said Swisslane Farm would have to add cows to its herd of 1,150 to increase productivity, which would mean more expense and higher environmental impact.

“Farmers are worried, not just about the rBST issue. They’re worried about what’s going to happen next,” she said. “What are they going to say we can’t use next? We’re trying to feed more and more people on less land, less resources. As the population increases, the farmer needs the ability to use technology. Our ability to keep providing safe and high-quality, affordable food is decreasing.”

American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology has been formed to push back against the anti-rBST trend.

Bradford said he will try to use other measures to make up for the lost profits. He said he signed the affidavit because “we didn’t feel it was worth the fight.”

In a related issue, several states have or are considering requirements for labeling on milk from rBST-free cows, Wolf said. That’s because the artificial growth hormone has never been present in milk, he said. Labels that proclaim milk as “rBST-free” are misleading, he said. Label information is not currently on the table in Michigan, he said.

Spartan is adding this label to its milk: “Our promise to you: This milk contains no artificial growth hormones,” Norcross said. Spartan owns 88 retail supermarkets, including the Family Fare and D&W Fresh Market banners in the Grand Rapids area.

Norcross said that Spartan brand 2 percent-fat milk is the company’s third best-selling product.

“This really is a national trend. We’re not only responding to the interests of our local consumers, but also consumers nationwide,” Norcross said. “This does not mean this milk is organic. Organic milk is a totally different product — which we offer as well.”

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