Two Wisconsin dairy processors announced last week that they would soon begin purchasing only rBST-free milk.
At first glance, this looks bad for the farmers who sell their milk to those companies. Whether or not a farm chooses to use rBST, it's important for dairy farmers to have a choice. Only dairy farmers and their management teams can decide whether supplementation is right for their farms.
I'll state here that we do not use rBST on our farm, but not because we oppose the technology. It was a business decision. We were offered a premium from our milk processor for not using rBST and that premium provided more income than we would have earned from selling additional milk.
At second glance, the decision made by those Wisconsin dairy processors is bad for all of us. Since one of those plants serves as a balancing plant, it takes milk in from a large number of other milk processors. That means those companies will need to find a different company to buy their extra milk and cream from supplemented cows. The other option is to require their dairy farms to stop supplementing cows.
Right now, there is very little wiggle room for milk in the Upper Midwest. Most processing plants are operating at full capacity. It will be extremely difficult for any milk processor purchasing milk from supplemented cows to find new balancing partners. Furthermore, since balancing milk has become such an intricate process, segregating supplemented milk and non-supplemented milk is increasingly difficult. So those processors will switch to purchasing rBST-free milk only.
Dairy farmers who choose to supplement their cows then have to decide between staying with their current processor and discontinuing supplementation or finding a new processor who will purchase their milk.
There aren't many processors in the Upper Midwest who are taking on new patrons. So most dairy farmers will, in effect, be forced to discontinue using rBST if they want to keep selling milk.
Long story short, it looks to me like the decision made last week by these processors could lead to the entire Upper Midwest becoming rBST-free.
It's a classic example of a domino effect.
I started this column by stating that it's important for dairy farmers to have choices regarding technology. We are losing a choice: a choice to use a technology that has been proven safe for humans and for dairy cows. A technology that, when used, cannot even be detected in cows' bodies or the food supply. A technology that helps dairy farmers use natural resources responsibly and protect the environment.
It's also important for consumers to have a choice.
Milk processors are defending their decision to purchase only rBST-free milk by claiming that customers are demanding rBST-free milk.
I believe it's inaccurate to say that consumers are demanding rBST-free milk when not all consumers have freedom of choice. In my town, the only name-brand milk a shopper can purchase is rBST-free. So any consumer who is brand-loyal is denied a choice.
There's a good chance that the consumers with freedom of choice choose rBST-free milk over milk without rBST-free label. But only because they've been misled.
When rBST became available for dairy farmers to use, there was some controversy surrounding its use. I remember the conversations well because rBST hit the market just before I was first crowned a junior dairy princess, so explaining rBST became my first advocacy job.
In reality, though, the vast majority of consumers didn't know what rBST was, nor did they care. They just wanted fresh, cold milk in the dairy cooler when they stopped to get groceries.
But some processing company, thinking they could squeeze a few extra cents out of consumers, decided to capitalize on the controversy. And so labels appeared touting milk as rBST-free or artificial growth hormone free. (Or one of the legal variations of the claim.)
We all know what happens when absence labels appear on food:
"Fat free" = "Oh, man, fat must really be bad."
"Preservative free" = "Oh, man, preservatives must really be bad."
"GMO-free" = "Oh, man, GMOs must really be bad."
"Hormone-free" = "Oh, man, hormones must really be bad."
Absence labels create confusion and fear.
Once one company decides to slap an absence label on the front of a package, every other company in the market follows suit.
Most consumers don't look beyond the label to decide for themselves whether the claims make sense. They are only choosing rBST-free milk because they think foods with absence labels are better for their families.
Marketing professionals know which words influence consumer behavior. And, in this case, that marketing was irresponsible. Consumers were led to fear a safe technology.
I haven't written about rBST before this. Which means that, in some ways, the decision by those two Wisconsin dairy processors is as much my fault as anyone else's, because I didn't speak up for choice in technology sooner. But, really, how can 43,000 or so dairy farmers help over 300 million consumers know the truth when marketing claims are bombarding them with mistruths?
Sadly, it seems like this column will serve no purpose other than a chance for me to vent. But, maybe, this can be lesson to us all to speak up for the technologies we can still choose to use.