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California dairy co-op to stop accepting hormone-treated milk

ASSOCIATED PRESS | March 7, 2007
Garance Burke

FRESNO – Consumer groups are applauding a major dairy cooperative's decision to dissuade its farmers from using a synthetic hormone to coax more milk from cows, a move insiders say will have a ripple effect across the dairy industry.

Members of California Dairies Co., who generate 10 percent of the milk produced in the nation, will have to stop injecting their herds with the genetically engineered hormone, rBST, by Aug. 1. If they don't, they'll have to pay a premium for the co-op to truck their milk to alternative markets.

RBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin, is already banned in Canada and Europe, mostly overs concerns that it makes cows more prone to illness.

On Jan. 23, the co-op's board of directors told its 650 members they would stop accepting milk from herds treated with the growth hormone and from cloned cows.

“We're merely responding to our customers' demands and we've gotten very strong support,” said Richard Cotta, the group's CEO and president.

The Food and Drug Administration approved rBST to boost production in dairy cows in 1993, making rBST one the first major biotechnology-related products to enter the national food supply.

Consumer organizations that question the hormone's safety lauded the co-op's new policy, which they said would make healthy dairy products widely available. The co-op owns Challenge Dairy Products, Inc. and sells milk to Safeway Inc. and Kraft Foods Inc.

“We're very grateful that CDI is taking this very significant step,” said Rick North, a project director at the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, which organizes national campaigns advocating for rBST-free products. “If dairy farmers want to preserve their business and not lose customers, they will be in the front of this trend.”

St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which markets the hormone under the brand name Posilac, stands to lose from the co-op's decision. Other major U.S. producers such as Oregon's Tillamook County Creamery Association also have forbidden its use.

“It's a concern when U.S. farmers are denied access to approved technologies that are going to help them make money,” said Andrew Burchett, a Monsanto spokesman. “It's also a concern that milk that is no different is being disparaged by deceptive marketing.”

Nationally, consumer groups say about 15 to 20 percent of dairy cows are injected with rBST. The hormone is still applied regularly in California, the nation's No. 1 dairy state, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation.

The new policy won't impact California's milk supply long term, because dairy farmers can also boost their herd's output by increasing feed rations or the number of milkings, said Mike Marsh, CEO of Western United Dairymen.

But the co-op's smaller members who are struggling to get a few more gallons of milk from their least productive cows could take a hit, he said.



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