Stealing Your Milk Money

Terry Etherton

Major national and regional dairy food companies appear to have plans for frightening the public into handing over more of their “milk money”. It’s a simple strategy: use fear marketing to make consumers buy more expensive milk that bears labels hinting it might be safer than other milk even though it is the same.Recent articles in the New York Times and Boston Globe have pointed to consumer demand as the reason for companies such as Dean Foods and H.P. Hood refusing to accept milk from cows supplemented with rbST at some of their processing plants. Yet the International Dairy Foods Council, which represents these companies and others, says there is no major consumer concern about farmers using this safe, FDA-approved technology.

The claim of consumer demand is a handy smokescreen as these companies slap labels on their milk cartons that claim “no rbST” or “artificial growth hormones” were used to produce the milk. The “center” of this discussion is recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), which is protein hormone that is identical to the one that all cows normally make. Recombinant bST, is widely used by dairy producers to increase milk production efficiency (i.e., more milk per unit of feed consumed), and milk production of lactating cows.

Some might suggest that no consumer in their right mind would feel good about buying milk that might have hormones in it would they? Not if for a few extra quarters per half gallon, they could spare the family from whatever horrible stuff labels imply may be in regular brand X milk. But the bothersome fact that undermines this strategy is this: All milk contains hormones—the same hormones in the same amounts, irrespective of whether the cow has been supplemented with rbST. This includes organic milk and milk from cows not supplemented with rbST. Even vitamin D, which is used to fortify milk, is a hormone. There’s no lab test or scientific analysis that can tell you if milk came from a cow supplemented with rbST or not. That’s because there is no difference.

Furthermore, there is a good reason dairy farmers use rbST and other FDA-approved production tools. It makes them more efficient and profitable and has been safe and effective since it was approved by the FDA thirteen years ago. It allows them to produce more milk with fewer animals, reducing the environmental impact of dairy farming and helping family farmers make a living with fewer cows.

Once you appreciate this, labels claiming “no rbST” or “artificial hormones,” seem like the tactics of a playground bully trying to take your milk money and put the squeeze on the nation’s dairy farmers.

So how can they get away with this? Clearly, most consumers are unaware of what is going on. But a few have heard the myths spread by activists that claim rbST creates milk that may cause cancer, cause children to enter puberty earlier than normal or cause women to give birth to twins. There’s not a bit of science showing any of this to be the case.

The much-studied science of unscrupulous marketing tells us that if you can frighten someone or create doubt and then offer them safety from their fear, you can help yourself to their money. You just have to create this fear. What better way to do this than labeling milk with a scary label?

What emerges is a story of smoke and mirrors. Some might call this a con game. According to some milk marketers, it’s called “meeting consumer demand.” Whatever the euphemism, it is wrong to market two products that are identical, and tout one as better at the expense of the other. It hurts farmers and citizens financially, not to mention that this glosses over the underlying science saying that all milk is safe and wholesome.

Next time you approach the dairy case to buy milk, do so with confidence. You can’t go wrong. It’s all safe, wholesome and nutritious. The most significant difference in all of the choices is the price of the packaging and the fat content. All milk being equal, I’ll be reaching for the best deal.

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