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Analysis: 'The Great Milk Value Take-Away'

Northeast's rbST-free fiasco threatens to sour milk's clean image.

In December's issue, American Agriculturist weighed in on the farmer's side with a few thoughts on the rbST milk marketing fiasco perpetrated by Dean Foods and H.P. Hood. And a fiasco it remains.

In brief, these merchandisers want dairy farmers to give up the opportunity to use Posilac (rbST) – proven and safe production technology – and to bear the cost. Meanwhile, the wholesalers and retailers are capturing higher prices with rbST-free labeling – fictional consumer fear stoked by misinformation.

Part of the problem is that dairy farmers, by and large, are too nice and too accommodating. And, producer organizations are mirror images of their membership, meaning they, too, can easily be taken advantage of.

On the other hand, milk wholesalers are generally of the opposite temperament – cut-throat, pushy merchandisers used to gross profit margins (by farmers' measure). This ruthlessly competitive bunch always seeks market advantage.

So far, milk merchandisers have fooled a semi-paranoid, finicky consumer segment into believing that milk from untreated cows is safer and better than that from treated cows. There's no scientific evidence whatsoever, just impure unsubstantiated conjecture.

Good business or damaging greed?

That's just good merchandising, right? Or, is it misleading advertising that scares people into wondering or fearing that regular milk is unsafe?

Look at it this way: If someone would try this tactic on McDonalds, Pepsi or Coca Cola, corporate lawyers would have "heads on a platter" within days.

Jon Jenkins, a dairyman from Bradford County, Pa., contends safety isn't an issue. "These marketers want to mislead consumers so they can get an edge over perfectly safe milk by implying their milk is safer.

"If consumers are really driving this, as these companies claim, then the premiums that shoppers pay ought to be passed on to us. Dairymen must stick together and give that message to companies that want to take control of our farms."

Thus far, cooperatives seem to be accepting of this great milk value take-away. If so, they're also accepting a dangerous precedent that could ultimately undercut even organic milk values.

In November, the Northeast Dairy Producers and Professional Dairy Managers of Pennsylvania sent a milksoppy message to ag media, calling for the entire supply chain to work together to "ensure that in this process, the dairy producer receives a fair value for milk."

It was preaching to the choir, and perhaps as effective. I'd hope that producer organizations and cooperatives are doing more tail-twisting than that.

New York Farm Bureau has taken more aggressive, appropriate action by writing to Andrew von Eschenbach, Acting Director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. President John Lincoln urged FDA to regulate labeling of milk "from cows not treated with rbST" as misleading labeling. Further, it asked FDA to require immediate removal of such labels "until credible, peer reviewed, scientific evidence shows health or food safety concerns" resulting from use of rbST technology.

Real issue is money, not safety

Dean Foods also owns the Colorado mega-dairy that's pushing the edge on organic dairy certification. It's the same company whose CEO flat out told Northeast dairy producers a couple years ago that his company would get milk from where ever it's cheapest.

If consumers feel organic milk is safer, that's fine. If they prefer milk produced on local family farms, that's great. If they want to drink milk from "happy (California) cows", that, too, is fine.

But to impugn that regular milk carries a health risk damages the whole industry's integrity. Billions of dollars have been invested to ensure milk quality and safety from cow to consumer.

Terry Etherton, dairy and animal science head at Penn State, puts that investment by producers and processors at more than $5 billion since 1984. Dairy producers shouldn't be frustrated by this rbST-free issue; they should be incensed!

Ag organizations, not just dairy farmers, must carry this issue to mainstream media via a well-organized, factual campaign. Carry this controversy to your metro news organizations. Urge your ag organizations to take it to Geraldo Rivera, John Stossel, the Wall Street Journal, maybe even the New York Times.

Then let consumers decide for themselves. It's time for ag organizations, cooperatives and Extension educators to show some backbone for the farmers they're supposed to be working for.

The Web site Feedstuffs Foodlink offers in-depth information on both rBST and the organic food debate. Check it out for the latest news including new information added recently.

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