Letter to the Editor about rbST – Fresno, California

Terry Etherton

This blog is different from those previously posted on my Blog.

The first part of this Blog is a Letter to the Editor from Mr. Douglas Van Beek, a progressive dairy producer in California. The letter expresses his concern about the decision made by California Dairies, Inc. (CDI) to begin a ban on rbST. As readers of my Blogs appreciate, there is compelling and overwhelming science-based evidence that the use of rbST is safe, and milk from cows supplemented with rbST is the same as rbST-free or organic milk with respect to nutrient content, wholesomeness and the presence of many protein and steroid hormones that are naturally present in milk.

After the Letter to the Editor from Mr. Van Beek is the article that was published in The Fresno Bee.

Following the article are some comments I share about the news story. There are aspects of the content that don’t fairly represent the large science evidence-base about the safety of rbST for cows and rbST-containing milk for consumers..so, there is a “slant” to the article. My objective? To correct it.

The article frames the biotechnology in a way that is not accurate or fair. Unfortunately, this is not a new occurrence in the media. The consequence? Consumers get an inaccurate perspective of the issue and science gets “tossed under the bus”.

Mr. Van Beek’s Letter to the Editor:

Date: Douglas Van Beek, owner
14808 Road 152
Van Beek Brothers Dairy
Tipton, CA 93272

Regarding: Article entitled “Milk ban targets growth hormone”
The Fresno Bee – Thursday March 8

I read with interest the above mentioned article. I appreciated the comment in the first sentence that California Dairies, Inc. (CDI) was implementing an rBST ban “even though the practice is safe”. Mr. Cotta, CEO of CDI was quoted as saying, “We need to please our customer”. What wasn’t mentioned in the article is that in order to provide their customers with so called “rBST free” milk, they will have to charge more, and these costs get passed on to the consumer. And what is the consumer getting for the extra cost. NOTHING!! Milk is Milk, whether it says “rBST free” or not. There is no difference. What does the consumer really want? They want a safe, wholesome product for themselves and their families. American consumers enjoy the safest food supply on the planet. Deceptive labeling practices have led consumers to believe that dairy products labeled as “rBST free” or “pesticide free” or “antibiotic free” are safer and healthier. It just isn’t true. Every container of milk in the dairy case is already all of the above. Elisa Odabashian of Consumers Union worries about what “rBST” milk will do to her kids. She can stop worrying, because it won’t do a thing. Scientific study after scientific study has proved that.

Milk is my families’ favorite beverage. The four of us (my wife and I and two children) drink over a gallon a day, and it comes right out of our milk tank at the dairy. We’ve used rBST on our dairy for about the past 10 years. I wouldn’t be using it if I didn’t believe it was safe for both my family and my cows.

Article published in The Fresno Bee

Milk ban targets growth hormoneVisalia-based dairy group, the state’s largest, drops rBST use.

By Dennis Pollock / The Fresno Bee

03/08/07 00:08:16

The state’s largest dairy cooperative said Wednesday that it will effectively ban use of growth hormones to satisfy consumers — even though the practice is safe.

“We need to please our customer,” said Richard L. Cotta, CEO and president of California Dairies Inc. “If they ask for little blue dots in the milk, we’ll find a way to put little blue dots in the milk.”

Use of the hormone rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, to boost milk production has been banned in Canada and has drawn criticism from some consumer groups in the United States.

The cooperative, with headquarters in Visalia, produces 43% of the milk sold in the state and has 550 San Joaquin Valley members with dairies from Stockton to Bakersfield. Statewide, it represents 650 dairy operators.

The cooperative’s decision was based on market demands, not because of any concerns about animal or consumer health, Cotta said.

“Since 2002, our customers who request milk free of rBST has increased,” he said, adding that most of the milk sold by retailers in Northern California already does not contain the hormone.

Demand for rBST-free milk in recent years has come from customers that include Foster Farms, Berkeley Farms, Safeway, Raley’s, Save Mart and Fresno-based Producers Dairy, Cotta said.

“We’ve got more demand for that product than we can get to market with,” he said, adding that “doing this is in sync with the organic movement.”

In a letter to members of the cooperative, Cotta wrote, “In the eyes of many, the movement toward organic food is seen as a refusal to buy products that come from management practices using hormones, pesticides and other growth enhancers.”

The letter puts producers on notice that the cooperative will not accept milk from cloned cows and that members are being asked to sign documents indicating they are not using rBST on their cows.

Beginning Aug. 1, the cooperative will not accept milk from cows treated with the hormone. If producers don’t sign the agreement, they can continue to use the hormone but must pay California Dairies a handling charge to move milk into a market accepting milk from cows treated with rBST. The cost would include charges for segregating the milk and transporting it.

Cotta estimated that 10% of members’ cows are treated with the hormone, and that up to a quarter of dairy operators use it “to some degree, perhaps on a handful of cows. I know of nobody who uses it on all the cows.”

Michael Marsh, who heads Western United Dairymen in Modesto, said as many as 40% of the state’s cows are treated “at one time or another.”

Marsh said rBST is used to increase milk production and that ceasing its use could mean still bigger dairies and herds. With hormones, “more milk can be produced on the same number of acres without increasing herd size.”

Elisa Odabashian, director of Consumers Union’s West Coast office, applauded California Dairies’ decision.

“I think this is a wonderful example of how consumers have responded and foiled a huge for-profit company that wants to fiddle around with nature,” Odabashian said, referring to the chemical companies that produce the artificial hormone.

Odabashian said assurances by the Food and Drug Administration that rBST does not pose a risk to human health have not quelled concern among some consumers, who worry about its long-term effects on the body.

“And I am one of those consumers,” Odabashian said. “I have kids, and I wonder what it will do to their little bodies. The FDA says it is fine, but they also say that eating meat from cloned animals is fine. I think I will make my own choice.”

Chowchilla dairy operator Edgar de Jager, a member of California Dairies, said he has used rBST on about 5% of his cows.

“I was toying with the thought of getting out of it anyway,” he said. “I went back and forth. The company made up my mind for me, and I welcome their decision.”

Moreover, he said, less milk on the market might benefit dairy operators struggling with low prices.

de Jager said the money — and time — spent on rBST might be better spent elsewhere, perhaps buying better alfalfa hay.

“In my eyes, it was a technology that should never have been approved by the FDA,” he said, adding, however, that he believes the hormone’s use is safe. “To me, there was enough milk in the pipeline. What we gained, we’ve lost in public perception.”

University of California Cooperative Extension agricultural economist L.J. “Bees” Butler said he is not surprised at the shift away from rBST. Consumers and a fair number of dairy operators have shied away from hormones over the past several years, he said.

“This has been an evolutionary change,” Butler said. “And I think a lot of it has to with the competition from the organic milk industry. The demand has been so huge that they have actually run out of organic milk in some grocery stores.”

Although Butler estimated that the organic milk industry represents only about 2% of the entire milk market, it’s growing by about 20% each year.

“It is small in comparison, but it is growing,” Butler said.

Terry Etherton’s Perspectives

The comment that Mr. Cotta shares about demand of consumers for rbST-free milk being increased is not consistent with the evidence from well-conducted surveys of consumer attitudes about biotechnology. There is no increase in the proportion of consumers seeking rbST-free milk at the grocery store. This has been covered in my Blogs.

Mr. Cotta clearly conveys that conventional foods must be produced by production practices that use hormones, pesticides and growth enhancers. This is irresponsible and seems to be intended to convey that conventionally produced foods contain hormones, pesticides and growth enhancers. As Mr. Cotta must clearly know ALL milk is the same with respect to composition of naturally occurring hormones, and does NOT contain pesticides or growth enhancers (don’t know what he precisely means by this term).

A standard approach in many news articles about ag biotechnology is to talk with a “consumer” activist to “balance” the story. In this article, that role was served by a representative of Consumers Union, a long-time opponent of rbST. Their opposition to rbST use has taken the standard approach of using misinformation and flawed logic. This individual used a dramatic sound bite ….”I have kids, and I wonder what it will do to their little bodies.”

That was a well-thought thought-out sound “bite” designed to scare some consumers. As discussed in the letter by Mr. Van Beek and my Blogs, rbST has NO biological effect in humans!

I wonder how come the reporter didn’t talk with a farmer who, like Mr. Van Beek or one of the many dairy scientists in the United States who support the technology?

Well, I guess you have to sensationalize the story to get folks to read the article. There are too many popular press articles written about ag biotechnology in which the story is framed so that there is a villain, victim and vindicator.

Guess who is the villain? Science, scientists and producers who use the biotechnology.

Farmers who elect to use a safe biotechnology, that improves their profitability, have their choice (actually “right”) to use rbST hijacked! What a travesty!

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