Hormone-Free Milk in Demand

A growing number of Americans are looking to buy milk that is free of artificial growth hormones. Synthetic hormones have been used in the U.S. for the last 13 years to boost milk production. The government says the hormones are not harmful to humans.

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Those Americans who still do have money to spend are increasingly looking to use the dollars to buy milk that is free of artificial growth hormones. Synthetic hormones have been used in this country for the last 13 years to boost milk production. The government says the hormones are not harmful to humans, but consumers are increasingly demanding milk produced without them. And that has dairy farmers up against the wall.

Jennifer Szweda Jordan has this story.

JENNFER SZWEDA JORDAN: Pennsylvania dairy farmer Rob Wydell(ph) is unusually busy. He's overseeing construction of a brand-new milking parlor for his 440 cows.

Mr. ROB WYDELL (Dairy Farmer): I just wanted to know where (unintelligible) that was. I don't know whether top care was it took it to the basement, you have to seeā€¦

JORDAN: There's shiny, green and white tile on the walls, cute windows to let in the sun, rubber mats to make the animals more comfortable. It's the biggest expansion Wydell's ever made on the farmland his parents bought 31 years ago near Erie, Pennsylvania. His face brightens when he talks about the moment he'll usher his cows into the new building.

Mr. WYDELL: So it will be better for the cows, better for our boys too.

JORDAN: Wydell says his cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America, encouraged him to produce more milk, so he took on the expansion. But recently, the cooperative issued him an ultimatum. DFA says its customers, which include grocery chains are demanding milk from cows that haven't been injected with the artificial growth hormone known as RBST.

Wydell nervously tugs at his jacket zipper as he reads the pledge he's been asked to sign.

Mr. WYDELL: I agree to cease on December 31st using RBST or any milk cows on my herd or under the management and control.

JORDAN: Wydell says signing the paper will cost him $150,000 a year, or 5 percent of his revenues because cows treated with this hormone give about a gallon more of milk a day. The cooperative says it's not forcing anyone to sign. It also says it's trying to get the highest price from non-RBST milk for its farmers. Non-RBST milk costs consumers about 25 percent more than regular milk.

But the cooperative can't guarantee how much farmers will earn when they switch. Wydell is afraid if he doesn't sign, the coop would pay the less for the milk he's producing now.

Mr. WYDELL: If I did that, I'd be out of business. I couldn't do that. So they're going to force you into signing these affidavits.

JORDAN: Wydell says people don't understand that RBST is safe. Pennsylvania's Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff agrees with him. Wolff recently banned companies from labeling milk as free of added growth hormones saying the labels mislead consumers into thinking such milk is safer or healthier.

But after public outcry and legal challenges to the ban, the state governor's office delayed it. Some critics suggest that Monsanto, the company that makes and sells the hormone is pressuring states to impose the labeling ban because it's worried about its sales.

Monsanto's Mike Lormor(ph) denies that.

Mr. MIKE LORMOR (Monsanto Company): We did not directly approach the Pennsylvania Department of Ag about the labels that would appear that the department became aware of the issue on their own, and we are supportive of their initiative.

JORDAN: Monsanto is, however, sending mailings to dairy farmers urging them to contact government agencies to get rid of what it calls misleading labels on milk. Advocacy groups say that while RBST has been approved by the government, there's still unanswered questions about its safety. Some studies linked RBST to health problems in cows, which could lead to increase antibiotic use.

RBST is banned in Japan, Canada and the European Union. Here in the U.S., the vast majority of customers are comfortable drinking milk with the hormone. Milk (unintelligible) RBST-free now makes up about 4 percent of the milk market. At a Pittsburgh Whole Foods grocery, Troy Jones(ph) is picking up some organic Half and Half for his coffee. Jones isn't sure whether hormones are safe, but he'd still rather not take the chance.

Mr. TREY JONES (Shopper): I say we're all grown-ups mostly, and we can decide for ourselves, you know, what's safe or not, and full disclosures better than any other compromise that leaves the information off.

JORDAN: Dairy farmer Rob Wydell also says he wants to decide for himself whether or not to use the hormone. For now, he says he'll probably sign the affidavit and eliminate the hormone. He says he's gotten over bumps in the road before and he's determined to keep his farm going.

For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Szweda Jordan.

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