Dairy Industry is Heading Down a Slippery Slope

Reprinted from Farmshine: May 4, 2007

Industry is heading down a slippery slope

Special for Farmshine

BROWNSTOWN, Pa. – The dairy industry is heading down a slippery slope. For those who may have thought the “rbST-free” milk labeling issue was an isolated concern: think again.

A small milk bottler in Washington state recently initiated a new production tool into the “free of” discussion: ionophores. According to news bulletins, the bottled milk label for Sno-Fresh Dairy now reads, “All Natural, Farm Fresh. Free of Antibiotics, Rumensin, rBST.”

Wow! What a scientific breakthrough! Milk, that is free of all these things? How’d they do that? Must be good stuff. The best.

Get the big truck for that load of manure! My good ‘ole standard, conventional, local store brand doesn’t contain any of those things either. Guaranteed.

Maybe some dairy farmers are not concerned about “rbST-free” milk labeling. Maybe the industry has come to accept and disregard claims of milk that is “free of antibiotics.” Maybe we view misleading labels as a “market niche” of little concern to our choices on the farm. Or maybe, we simply console ourselves with the thought that most consumers are reasonable enough to know that ALL MILK is free of antibiotics… free of rbST… free of “you name the production tool.” Just because this last statement is true in reality, doesn’t mean it is “true” in the minds of consumers.

Just because a dairy farmer treats a sick cow with antibiotics or chooses to use FDA-approved rbST for production management or chooses to supplement with an FDA-approved ionophore for improved feed efficiency, doesn’t mean the milk contains any of these things. I would have to say that most consumers are not aware of this simple truth.

Milk has been safety-tested for decades. This is something consumers don’t have conscious awareness of anymore: it is behind the scenes and taken for granted. From a milk-regulating standpoint, misleading labels that raise concern about the safety of “conventional” milk are a slap-in-the-face. All milk goes through a litany of tests, and milk safety regulators take their jobs very seriously.

Do consumers even realize that milk containing antibiotics, can’t be sold under any label? It is discarded. Do they realize that dairy farmers hold the milk from antibiotic-treated cows, out of the tank? Do they know dairy farmers can’t sell milk from treated cows until after the prescribed withdrawal period, and if they do accidentally milk a treated cow in the line, the whole tank of milk is thrown away? That’s already the law for all milk. The safeguards and testing are already in place for all milk.

Here’s a provocative thought: What’s to stop ALL MILK labels from stating: “free of antibiotics, rbST, etc.?” Since the milk doesn’t contain these items even if they are used in managing the herd, can’t all labels – including conventional milk labels – simply state that the milk doesn’t contain these things? Seems reasonable to me.

When I explain to my ag-illiterate friends and acquaintances, who question me about milk or beef from time to time, they end up seeing the reason in my argument. Trouble is, most consumers don’t ask the right people, or they don’t ask anyone at all. They read a label and form their own conclusions.

Concerning the “free of” milk labels on today’s market… I make this humble observation. What are dairy farmers supposed to do? Volatile and prolonged periods of low milk prices… The government-subsidized business of producing fuel from corn, sending grain prices skyward… Energy costs to run a dairy and grow feeds and forages, going through the roof… A mixed up, largely incomprehensible, regulated milk marketing system with price accuracy in question… Increasing pressures from costly environmental regulations and nuisance lawsuits…

In the face of very tight margins, some producers make the choice to adopt organic methods of production, and there is a niche for this product. Others remain conventional and make the choice to adopt available and approved production tools to get better feed efficiency (read more milk per pound of feed), to get better cow efficiency (read more milk per cow), to treat a sick cow that shows a good chance of recovery (read keep my good cow if the treatment will make her better).

Every producer should have this choice. And such choices are no doubt made after penciling out the return, in an effort to run a profitable dairy farm.

This is not an organic versus conventional debate. Misleading labels are a concern because they promote the chipping away of producer choices without commensurate dollars returned and without thinking about the long term consequences for food production. Unless the Food and Drug Administration and/or Federal Trade Commission clarify labeling guidelines to stop deceptive and often disparaging labels and advertising, I believe we will see a steady increase in approved technologies, coming under fire due to marketing ploys and misleading labels.

I know the mantra: the customer is king; the customer is always right; give the customers what they want. But honestly, do consumers today even know what they want? Do they have any kind of real-world perspective on this? Or is the animal rights activist agenda telling them – ever so subtly and dishonestly – what they want? They have certainly targeted a busy bunch of people. Dairy farmers are way too busy on the farm to effectively organize against the subtle attack that lies beneath the surface of the deceptive labeling issue.

But make no mistake, the labeling issues are frustrating to the people who know better: the people who toil to produce food for a largely ungrateful nation; the scientists who research and develop the means for better production from fewer resources.

In today’s marketing environment, it appears that some people think it is okay to use confusion as a marketing tool. And why not? Evidently, it pays. Apparently, there are enough affluent people in this country, who are willing to pay for simple un-truths and half-truths.

In my opinion, the way some of these “free of” labels are worded is a disgrace. It is also foolish. Are we – as a society – really this gullible? Guess so.