Milk Labeling in Minnesota – Another Journalistic Venture

“Sweet Bonus” or Survival? Get the Facts and Then Decide!
by Sherry Bunting
Introduction by Terry Etherton

On June 22, 2008, the Star Tribune newspaper (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota) published an article, “Is Labeling Milk as Free of Hormones a Bad Idea“, written by Lou Gelfand. The story is great example of the lousy and slanted journalism being practiced that focuses on agricultural biotechnology … in this case, rbST and milk labeling.

I have written about bad science journalism before. It continues to mystify me why some journalists fail to practice accurate and informative journalism. Must be easier to present a bias, distort the truth and mislead readers.

Enjoy the response that Ms. Bunting sent to the Star Tribune.

# # # #

As a 28-year veteran journalist, I find several inaccuracies in your article about milk labeling.

First, record high milk prices do not mean good income for dairy farmers. They are facing record high prices for all inputs — particularly feed, fuel, and fertilizer — surging farther and faster than milk prices (up 35-75% over year ago). The U.S. Department of Agriculture figures that dairy farms are profitable when the milk-feed ratio is 3.0 or above. Currently, it is 1.7!

Second, the dairy price support program does not “buoy” milk prices. This very low “floor” on the price of milk has not been triggered in years and it has not been adjusted for inflation. It is a non-factor.

Third, I am from Pennsylvania and our Sec of Agriculture did not “retreat.” A compromise was reached. Bottlers are prohibited from making “absence claims.” They are allowed to make production-related claims only, such as “produced from cows not treated with rbST.” They may not say “hormone free.” In addition, the FDA disclaimer stating no distinguishable difference in the milk must also appear on the label in a font size at least half the size of the claim.

Fourth, the countries mentioned do not ban products from cows treated with rbST (Posilac), they ban their farmers from using it because they market milk in a supply management or quota system. In Canada, for example, dairy farmers buy the right to sell a certain “quota” of milk. This keeps the supply tight and the price high to farmers. A production efficiency tool like rbST is certainly not going to be allowed by a nation that uses supply management.

Fifth, technologies that safely boost production efficiency are conserving our natural resources by producing more with less. In case you have not noticed, the U.S. and World population is expanding and our land base for producing food is shrinking. What could be more “green” than producing more milk with fewer cows, requiring less feed, less land to grow the feed, less manure waste nutrient to manage, etc. You get my drift.

Sixth, the only “sweet bonus” here is the one the retailers are collecting from consumers for “hormone-free” milk when actually all milk contains protein hormones as does nearly every food on the planet — plant or animal. There is no distinguishable difference between naturally occurring bovine somatotropin in the cow and the synthetic hormone used to supplement the cow. These cows actually benefit with greater longevity as they are producing milk at a profitable level for a longer period of time, so a farmer can afford to keep feeding and caring for a cow that does not breed back when she should for her next lactation. In those cases, if the milk production falls to a certain level and she is not with calf for another lactation, she would be sold for beef.

You see, rbST is not the “evil demon” activists and lately, journalists, seem to want to make it out to be. But of course, there are simply not enough journalists today with a solid background in science to discern the truth, and even fewer who truly understand agriculture and razor thin margins farmers operate on.

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