PORTLAND – An aggressive advertising campaign to inform consumers that its Maine milk is pure and free of growth hormones appears to be paying off for Maine’s largest dairy.
“Not a day goes by that we don’t receive a letter or call from customers grateful that we have banned growth hormone in our milk,” Stanley Bennett II, operator of the family-owned Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, said recently.
Consumer concerns over food safety and animal welfare have dramatically pushed up the sales of both hormone-free milk and organic milk in Maine over the past three years.
Wading into the international controversy over the use of growth hormones, Oakhurst not only has been able to keep its identity intact amid national consolidations of dairies, it also has expanded, despite the risky move of banning rBGH.
Recombinant bovine growth hormone, known as rBGH, is a controversial compound that, when injected into cows, significantly increases milk production. Not only does Oakhurst require their producers to sign affidavits vowing not to use rBGH, the company also pays a premium to those hormone-free producers.
“We pay 75 Maine farmers a 16-cent [per hundredweight] extra premium,” said Bennett. “The use of artificial growth hormones in dairy cows has raised public concern. All dairy farmers supplying milk to Oakhurst have agreed in writing that they will not use these hormones.”
Similar to decisions made by H.P. Hood Inc., Cabot Cheese, Gifford’s Ice Cream, State of Maine Cheese, Organic Valley, Stony Brook Farm and the cadre of Maine’s organic dairy farmers, Bennett said it came down to an “issue of trust” between Oakhurst and its customers.
By gambling that his customers wanted a pure product, Bennett has seen the company grow in sales more than 8 percent a year for the past five years and increase the product line from 70 items to more than 120. Oakhurst employs more than 180 people and has $70 million in annual sales – amazing statistics when compared with the flat or declining growth in other Maine dairies.
At the same time, consumers have shown increasing interest in the purity of organic milk.
Russ Libby of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, Maine’s certifying agency for organic growers, said the state has the largest percentage of organic dairy farms of any state in the nation – more than 4 percent.
“It is no coincidence that the first commercial organic milk farm [in Maine] began at the same time rGBH was approved. Today, 40 of Maine’s 480 dairy farms are organic,” Libby said.
Six Maine farmers ship organic milk to CROPP, the Coulee Region Organic Products Pool, in Wisconsin. Its director, Randall Juenemann, bases the increased demand for organic milk squarely on rBGH. A cooperative of only a handful of farms when rBGH was approved seven years ago, CROPP is now the nation’s largest organic dairy food supplier.
“Consumer interest has been really driven by their concern about pure food,” said Juenemann. “The introduction of rBGH is a huge factor driving the industry.”
Bob Wellington, a milk economist who works for Agri-Mark Inc., a New England milk cooperative, said that Maine is unique.
“Maine is the only area where [rGBH] is used aggressively as a marketing tool,” he said. “In most other areas of New England, it is pretty much a nonissue. Maine is the only place where customers are requesting hormone-free milk.”
Libby credits health-savvy consumers for the Maine interest.
To capitalize on this, Wellington said H.P. Hood Inc. in Portland, which also supplies hormone-free milk, is preparing to mount its own aggressive advertising campaign, using the Maine Seal of Quality, issued by the Maine Department of Agriculture, to push further into the southern New England market.
Wellington said that more farmers are choosing not to use rBGH, but that they are basing their decisions on a variety of factors. These include cost, herd health, and milk bonuses paid for hormone-free products.
For Bennett, the decision to go hormone-free was easy.
“It was not a difficult decision at all,” Bennett said. “We are by far the smallest dairy in the business, and our business is selling milk. We don’t claim to know the science. We are simply marketing milk to consumers. Those consumers want freshness and purity.”
Bennett said that through focus groups and surveys, company officials are consistently told that the three most important issues with his customers are that his company is a family-owned business, that Oakhurst has impeccable quality standards, and that the milk contains no growth hormones.
Bennett hopes that more producers in Maine will choose to produce hormone-free milk. By offering a premium, Bennett is banking on giving dairy farmers the incentive to switch.
“This may sound self-serving, but we don’t look at the science. We market milk, and we just don’t want to create any more impediments in the marketplace,” he said.
Garelick’s Dairy in Bangor, formerly Grant’s Dairy, is owned by the country’s largest milk processor, Suiza Foods of Texas. The company does not require any of its suppliers, whether individual farms or dairy cooperatives, to provide proof that the milk being supplied contains no growth hormones.
In addition to owning Garelick’s and West Lynn Creamery in Massachusetts, Suiza owns Hershey’s Milk and Cumberland Farms. In addition, it has an agreement to supply milk to all 170 Stop ‘n Shop stores in New England.
Peter Ross, vice president of marketing for Garelick’s, in a telephone interview from his Franklin, Mass., office, said recently that there is no way the company could ensure that all the milk being supplied to its plants was rBGH-free, even with an affidavit system.
“We obviously would love to make the claim that our milk is rBGH-free,” he said. “But as you know, there is no way to test for its presence. We purchase milk from hundreds of individuals, cooperatives and often from outside [our own system].”
Ross said that no processor would be able to prove rBGH absence or presence in milk, and would have to rely on the honesty of its producers. “I’m not sure anyone can make the rBGH-free claim every day, day in and day out,” said Ross.
Ross also noted that “from time to time we hear from consumers” regarding the rGBH issue, but he has found “that the subject is not always well understood.”
The debate continues
The long-simmering controversy regarding the use of rBGH is back in the forefront, with many consumers, Maine dairies, Vermont senators and the Canadian health board rejecting its use.
The most recent development in the international debate on rBGH safety was the decision late last year by the United Nations’ main food safety body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, not to endorse the safety of the growth hormone.
Codex is the body charged with setting international food safety standards. Its action reflected a moratorium on rBGH use already in place in the European Union.
Codex shelved any further discussion of a U.S.-backed proposal to set a maximum residual level for rBGH, in light of strong opposition from other nations that question the hormone’s safety.
By indefinitely shelving the proposal, Codex acknowledged the deep division among countries such as the United States, which insists that rBGH is safe, and countries such as those of the European Union, where the hormone has not been approved because of nagging safety concerns.
Maine opponents to the use of the drug have hailed Codex’s decision as a victory and have praised companies like Oakhurst that have taken a stand.
The debate on the use of growth hormone drugs has gone on since their approval in 1993. The issue is complex and emotionally charged, involving issues of food safety, security, animal welfare, dairy farming jobs and genetic engineering.
According to Monsanto Co., which markets rBGH under the name Posilac, 3 million of the country’s 9 million dairy cows are injected with the drug. The smallest herd numbers five; the largest, 10,000.
Thought by some to be a buried issue, the issue of growth hormones in milk remains nonetheless controversial and current. Volumes of studies and information have been published on growth hormones, and there are as many proponents as opponents. What one believes about growth hormone seems ultimately to be a matter of whose research and interpretation one trusts.
Proponents of the drug, which last year resulted in $200 million in revenue for Monsanto Co., believe it will be the answer to milk shortages nationwide and dispute claims it can be injurious to the health of both humans and herds.
Those who oppose the drug call it “crack for cows,” a chemical that revs up the cow’s system and forces it to make more milk. They claim it’s linked to prostate and breast cancer in people, and a greater level of disease in cows.
They also say its use will flood the market with surplus milk and cause the collapse of the U.S. dairy industry.
“We’re not saying that the milk is poisoned and people shouldn’t be drinking it,” said Ellen Taggert of Rural Vermont, a consumer watchdog group, who, along with a national group, The Center for Food Safety, has petitioned the FDA for further testing of rBGH. “What we are saying is the research process was corrupted.”
The Canadian government’s decision to reject the hormones was “based on nine years of comprehensive review,” Joel Weiner, acting director of the Health Protection Branch, a division of Health Canada, the Federal Drug Administration equivalent,said from Toronto.
He stopped short of saying the drug was harmful to humans.
“It’s pretty clear we have to reject the request for approval in Canada,” Weiner said. “In our view, it presents an unacceptable threat to the safety of dairy cows.”
Canadian scientists reviewed unpublished data from the original 90-day Monsanto rat study, the 1990 study used to garner FDA approval, and found health effects previously uncited. In its analysis, they found that 20 to 30 percent of the rats that ingested high doses of the hormone developed antibodies to it, a sign that it was active in the bloodstream. Some of the male rates developed cysts on their thyroids and abnormalities in their prostates.
In early 2000, after the Canadian researchers released their findings, U.S. Sens. Patrick J. Leahy and James M. Jeffords, both of Vermont, asked Dr. Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, to investigate whether the FDA overlooked evidence in the case. She refused.
In a response to Jeffords, Shalala wrote: “In recent months, the FDA has completed a comprehensive, page by page audit … and based on this audit, FDA has reaffirmed that rBGH is safe for human consumption.” Shalala said rBGH critics “did not review relevant data correctly.”
Opponents to rBGH were given a boost four months ago, when Canada rejected the use of the genetically engineered hormone after Health Canada questioned the results of FDA’s studies that food products from treated cows are safe for human consumption.
That leaves the United States as the only major country in the world that allows the use of rBGH.
Several other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, are mulling approval. The 14-nation European Union’s moratorium on all U.S. dairy products expired and then was renewed in 2000. It was put in place originally because of the perception of insufficient FDA testing of growth hormones and the lack of labeling of products from hormone-treated cows.
The hormone’s history
The FDA approved rBGH in 1993 after a 90-day study on rats was conducted by Monsanto. The hormone, which nearly duplicates hormones produced naturally by cows, boosts milk production by up to 15 percent.
Approximately 60 years ago, scientists discovered that injecting cows with bovine growth hormone, or BGH, extracted from cattle pituitary glands increased milk production. In the late 1980s, it became technically possible and economically feasible to produce large quantities of BGH using recombinant DNA processes. In other words, Monsanto created a fake growth hormone, which is essentially the same as the pituitary-derived hormone.
There is a glut of information available about the two growth hormones, rBGH and its recently produced relative, rBST (recombinant bovine somatrotropin), both produced by Monsanto.
Likewise, much information is available on IGF-1, or insulinlike growth factor-1, the hormone that some scientists are linking to some types of cancer.The presence of rBGH or rBST in the cow’s blood stimulates the production of IGF-1, a hormone naturally found in the milk of cows and humans. The levels of IGF-1 in treated milk can be up to 10 times higher than in untreated milk. It is not destroyed by pasteurization.
IGF-1 promotes cell division, and opponents of growth hormones believe that when treated cows’ milk is consumed by noninfants, it is a cancer accelerant. They claim it has been associated with breast, prostate and colon cancers.
Science magazine recently released a study linking IGF-1 to cancer. While naturally occurring in milk, IGF-1 is increased in great levels in treated cows. The FDA, short of acknowledging IGF-1 is a health threat to humans, acknowledges that it is a serious concern for cows. As IGF-1 levels increase, so do the cow’s incidents of udder infections, mastitis, or milk-gland infection, reproductive problems and digestive disorders.
Monsanto denies these links, quoting an FDA study that stated “the suggestion that IGF-1 in milk can induce or promote breast cancer in humans is scientifically unfounded and misguided.”
Since those studies were released, however, more than 21 dairy associations and citizens groups asked the Federal Drug Administration to pull the growth hormone off the market and re-evaluate the research it used to declare the compound safe.
Monsanto’s Web site, in numerous references to the rBGH controversy, states, “FDA’s determination that food products from cows treated with [rBGH] are safe for consumers has been supported by numerous scientific and regulatory bodies.”
Gary F. Barton, director of biotechnology communications for Monsanto, said recently, “We know it doesn’t cause health problems in either animals or humans. It is just a tool for farmers to use, like artificial insemination.
“The bottom line,” said Barton, “is that no test anywhere can tell the difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and milk from untreated cows. There is no difference.
“It is not us [Monsanto] saying it is safe,” he said. “It is regulatory authorities around the world.”
Walter Whitcomb, a Morrill dairy farmer, former state legislator and current chairman of the Maine Dairy Industry Association, said rBGH “is not the bogeyman that some people are making it out to be.”
Whitcomb has chosen not to use the hormone in his herd because he had always shipped milk to the dairy now owned by Oakhurst.
“We have our own personal opinion,” he said, ” but I defend the right of others to use this. It is an issue with a wide range of opinions and a real minefield for an organization like ours. Farmers who have passions on each side of the issue watch us closely.”
Whitcomb estimated that fewer than 50 percent of Maine dairy farmers use the artificial hormone.
“I can show you six farmers that have strong feelings about not using growth hormone,” he said. “I can just as easily show you six others that say it is just a tool of production.”
He said some farmers look at the herd management issue of using rBGH, while others realize “there are some attempts to make this a health issue.”
The bottom line, however, is that there are seasonal shortages of milk in New England and no matter what management practices a farmer uses, someone will buy the milk.
“We have always produced more milk that we can use in here in Maine,” Whitcomb noted. “We’re an exporting state.
“This is becoming market-driven,” he said, pointing out that if H.P. Hood aligns itself with Oakhurst to promote hormone-free milk, many farmers may be making decisions to go without rBGH. “Ironically, if there is overwhelming market success for hormone-free milk, all the other processors will follow suit, and Oakhurst will lose their market niche.
“Ultimately,” said Whitcomb, “this will play itself out in the marketplace.”