Sunday, March 09, 2008

"Grassroots" group, but not grass-fed

The NYT runs a story on an astroturf group, American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (Afact), dedicated to promoting milk produced with synthetic bovine growth hormone, aka rBST or rBGH. Responding to consumer suspicion of the hormone, milk labeled as untreated has achieved wide marketplace penetration. “Some dairy industry veterans say it’s only a matter of time before nearly all of the milk supply comes from cows that weren’t treated with Posilac.” And other dairy products may follow suit. (The fact that they’ve been slower to do so illustrates the importance of salience to human thinking – there’s no reason we shouldn’t have the same preferences for ice cream and cheese, but milk appears to us to be closer to the cow and thus hormone treatment seems more significant.)

Why might farmers resist this trend? As the Times explains:

Cows typically produce an extra gallon a day when they are treated with Posilac. That can translate into serious money for dairy farmers at a time when prices are near record highs.

So Afact has embarked on a counteroffensive that includes meeting with retailers and pushing efforts by state legislators and state agriculture commissioners to pass laws to ban or restrict labels that indicate milk comes from untreated cows.

Last fall in Pennsylvania, Dennis Wolff, the agriculture secretary, tried to ban milk that was labeled as free of the synthetic hormone because, he said, consumers were confused. Mr. Wolff’s office acknowledged that it had no consumer research to back up his claim, and he eventually had to scale back his plans when consumer groups and Gov. Edward G. Rendell balked.

…. A Consumer Reports survey last summer found that 88 percent of consumers believed that milk from cows not treated with synthetic hormones should be allowed to be labeled as such.

Afact says it believes that such “absence” labels can be misleading and imply that milk from cows treated with hormones is inferior. In fact, the F.D.A. maintains that there is no significant difference between milk from cows that are treated and from those that are not.

…. In September 2006, Kevin Holloway, president of the Monsanto dairy unit, gave a speech in which he said the “fundamental issue” was dairy farmers’ ability to choose the best technology. “Dairy farmer choice to use a variety of F.D.A.-approved technologies is at risk,” he said.

…. Afact believes that the push for milk from untreated cows is being driven by advocates like Consumers Union and PETA, “who make a profit, living and business by striking fear in citizens,” Mr. Miller said in an e-mail message.

The group also believes it will be hard for food retailers to “move away from the rBST-free stance without legislation and government policy,” according to an Afact presentation to dairy farmers in January.

Private enterprise loves the free market, until it loses.

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