PodCast: Consumer Awareness of Biotechnology – Separating Fact from Fiction

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Transcript: Consumer Awareness of Biotechnology – Separating Fact from Fiction

Terry Etherton

I had the pleasure of speaking at a meeting of dairy producers in Lebanon County, PA on October 25, 2006 about rbST-free milk, and the tactics that some milk cooperatives are using to force producers who use rbST to STOP supplementing cows with rbST. The highlights of this meeting were reported in depth by Sherry Bunting in the October 27, 2006 issue of Farmshine, and the reader of this Blog is encouraged to read this excellent article.

There are many important aspects that consumers and dairy producers need to appreciate about rbST-free milk. These include: 1) defending the right of dairy producers to use a safe and effective biotechnology that improves profitability; 2) the tactics employed by some cooperatives to “persuade” producers to stop using the biotechnology (these involve paying a small premium for discontinuing use or levying a charge if use of rbST continues); and 3) the rationale used by some cooperatives, processors and retailers that rbST-free milk is being promoted in the marketplace because of consumer concern about the technology. My view is that the latter argument is simply a “manufactured” justification since there is no evidence from well-organized and conducted surveys of consumer attitudes about food safety that indicates there is any basis to make this distinction from a food safety perspective.

On November 2, 2006, the International Food Information Council (IFIC) released a report, Food Biotechnology: A Study of the U.S. Consumer Attitudinal Trends. 2006 Report (see http://ific.org/research/biotechres.cfm). This is an annual report of consumer attitudes about food biotechnology and safety. It provides facts that clearly indicate a significant majority of consumers have no concern about food biotechnology. Approximately 72% of consumers say they are confident about the safety of the U.S. food supply. For those respondents who indicated a concern about some aspect of food safety, most indicated concern about food borne microbial illness (36%) or improper food handling (35%). Only 3% of all consumers indicated biotechnology as a concern. With respect to the latter, this refers to biotechnology in a very broad sense and includes plant and animal biotechnology. It is not specific to rbST-free milk. Moreover, only 1% of consumers indicated that they would like more biotechnology information added to the food label.

What does all of this mean? First, there is no scientific evidence that consumer concern is the driving force for the “push” that is occuring to promote rbST-free milk. There is, quite clearly, very little concern about food biotechnology among consumers! Secondly, there is no interest in having information about biotechnology added to the label of milk or dairy products. It is remarkable that 74% of the repondents were unaware that biotech foods are being sold in the supermarket.

So, there you have it. The “fiction” that is being peddled about the rbST-free milk issue is that consumer concern is the driving force for cooperatives, processors and retailers to sell the product. As I have written previously, there is no difference between rbST-free milk versus milk from cows supplemented with rbST. What we are witnessing is a ploy to differentiate milk that does not differ compositionally or in any other way from regular milk. The result is a product that sells for appreciably more in the dairy case. Not surprisingly, this mark-up is large (this is a story in itself to see what the difference in price is between milk and the rbST-free version; if you check this in your local grocery story, please let me know). The other part of this margin manipulation is that, surprise, little is returned to the producer.And so, this classic manipulation of margin to enhance profit is carried out at the producer’s expense. The much higher price charged by retailers for “rBST-free” milk will not be shared equitably with producers. In fact, producers will suffer – either when the temporary “premium” for not using rBST is discontinued, or, more directly, if they are charged a premium for using rBST.

Consumers also will take a hit because they will be paying higher prices for an illusion.

This kind of manipulation in the market place is not new; however, allowing this non-issue to drive milk marketing will have a negative consequence for all of production agriculture. The future viability of animal agriculture depends upon an informed response to this type of marketing approach. Suggesting that consumers are demanding this change in labeling cannot be supported and should be challenged.

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