Kroger Rejects GMO Milk: The Tipping Point?
Most Americans don't understand GMO foods. But that appears to be changing. Surveys consistently show that a majority of Americans are unaware that more than 70% of processed foods they eat contain ingredients from GE corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton. But Kroger's recent ban of sales of GMO milk suggest something is afoot. Clearly Americans are increasingly aware of one GE product in their food, and they don’t like it. The food industry is now responding. Food retail giant Kroger recently announced that by February 2008 all the milk processed by the company will be from cows not injected with a genetically engineered growth hormone known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) or rBGH. It's a significant change.
Reached tipping point
Kroger’s announcement is the latest indication of an rBST-free trend sweeping the nation’s dairy industry. The number of dairies using the hormone is falling like dominoes across the country. All milk produced in Oregon is now rBST-free. rBST-free dairy producers include, among others, Wilcox Dairy in Washington, Great Plains Dairy in North Dakota, Darigold Farms and Meadow Gold in Montana, Associated Food Stores in Utah, Sinton Dairy in Colorado, Byrne Dairy in New York, Garelick Farms in New Jersey, and H.P. Hood in Massachusetts. Dean Foods, the nation’s largest dairy processor, has converted to rBST-free production in several of its New England facilities, and grocery giant, Safeway, has done the same in Washington and Oregon. In May, Publix Super Markets, with 900 stores in the South—hardly a hotbed of anti-genetic engineering activism—went rBST-free in its branded milk products.
The trend isn’t limited to dairies. Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill is serving only rBST-free sour cream in all of its 530 or more restaurants.
Rick North of Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility says two events brought the rBST-free trend to a tipping point. First, coffee retailer Starbucks asked all its dairy suppliers to go rBST-free, and then California Dairies, which produces 8% of the milk supplied in the US, banned the use of rBST by this month.
Like “steroids for athletes”¯
All these dairies are going rBST-free for one reason: consumers don’t want genetically engineered hormones in their milk. The dairies say they are simply responding to this demand. “We wanted our customers to enjoy the wholesome goodness of milk, without added hormones,”¯ said Publix’s director of media and community relations, Maria Brous.
Controversy has surrounded rBST, the creation of Monsanto Company, since it was approved by the FDA in 1994. An estimated 20% of dairy cows in the United States are injected with rBST to increase milk production. While the FDA says the hormone is safe and doesn’t affect milk quality, consumer groups claim that milk from cows injected with rBST contains high levels of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), which is considered a potent tumor promoter. A Canadian study found that rBST significantly increased the risks of mastitis, failure to conceive, and lameness in cows. As a result, rBST is banned in Canada and Europe. New Hampshire’s commissioner of agriculture Stephen H. Taylor has likened rBST to “steroids for athletes.”¯
Dairy producers inform consumers that their products are rBST-free with label statements such as, “No rBST in our products mean better and healthier cows”¯ or “Our Farmers’ Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones.”¯
Monsanto despises the labels, has sued some companies that use them, and now wants the FDA and Federal Trade Commission to crack down on them. The company recently sent letters to the agencies stating, “For years now, deceptive milk labeling practices have misled consumers about the quality, safety, or value of milk and milk products from cows supplemented with rBST.”¯ Monsanto goes so far as to claim that the rBST-free labels “present a serious regulatory and public health concern.”¯
Doesn’t Monsanto realize that many consumers view rBST as a “public health concern?”¯
North says Monsanto is complaining because the rBST-free trend is hitting them where it hurts—the bottom line. “Monsanto is getting clobbered in the marketplace because dairies nationwide are going rBST-free,”¯ he says.
Shedding light on GE foods
The rBST-free trend is happening despite the fact that the US, unlike the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Russia, Switzerland, Norway, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, doesn’t require labeling of genetically engineered foods.
US dairy processors and other companies committed to GE-free food production must resort to “negative”¯ labels, which state that a product is “rBST-free”¯ or “non-GMO.”¯
Monsanto and the majority of US food companies prefer that Americans continue to eat genetically engineered foods in the dark. They are afraid, and rightly so, that if a little light is shed on GE food, Americans will reject them, which is happening with rBST. “The more consumers know about this, the less they want it,”¯ says North.