MELISSA BLOCK, host:
A move is under way in New England that some say may soon end the use of artificial growth hormones with dairy cows. Two of New England's biggest dairies say that beginning next month, they will only buy milk from hormone free farms. HP Hood and Dean Foods, which operate Gerelick Farms, are hoping to capture new customers who now buy organic.
But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, some farmers say they shouldn't be forced to give up using hormones which are deemed safe by the FDA.
TOVIA SMITH: Even with the cost of organic milk sometimes running twice as high as conventional brands, organic sales have doubled in the past few years and dairies like Dean Foods and Hood are now looking to get a piece of the action with a new mid-level option.
Spokeswoman Lynne Bohan says in a few weeks, Hood will start selling conventional milk that is hormone free.
Ms. LYNNE BOHAN (Spokesperson, HP Hood): We do know that one of the number one reasons consumers purchase organic milk is because they do not want milk from cows that have been treated with artificial growth hormones, so we hope that by offering milk from farmers who pledge not to use artificial growth hormones, we will be addressing that request from consumers, that demand.
Ms. HARRIET STITCH: I personally would try it as long as it had no hormones.
SMITH: Indeed some consumers now buying organic milk at Whole Foods Market just outside Boston, like 58-year-old Harriet Stitch of Newton, say they would gladly give up organic if they could get a cheaper milk that's also hormone free.
Ms. STITCH: Hormones really bother me. I'm a breast cancer survivor and I don't think people need to have extra hormones in their life.
SMITH: But some farmers are concerned that milk marketers are confusing consumers like Stitch. The FDA says the artificial hormone RBGH is harmless. Ben Froyn(ph), who uses it on Froyn's Farm in East Canaan, Connecticut, to help boost production and make ends meet, says he's frustrated that he may have to give up something that the FDA says is safe. He says dairy companies are fueling a false public perception that hormone free milk may be healthier than milk from cows that are treated.
Mr. BEN FROYN (Dairy farmer): There's milk and there's milk and there's milk. And as far as I'm concerned maybe they can get a marketing leg up on this. But I don't see that distinction. It's emotion that separating those milks. There's no facts.
SMITH: Froyn also questions how the dairies will enforce farmers' pledges and how they'll ever really know which cows are on hormones, which used to be and which never were.
Mr. FROYN: With bacteria, they count the bacteria. With antibiotics, they test for antibiotics. And it's a yes or a no. With this particular product, the milk is indistinguishable. You can't say that this milk is, that the cow's been treated with that and then other milk if they were not. There's no real ability to verify it.
SMITH: Froyn is one of 1,500 farmers in a regional cooperative called Agri-Mark that's trying to negotiate a premium price for farmers going hormone free. If the price is high enough some farmers, like Bob Richardson of Rocky Acres Farm in Warren, Massachusetts, think they may end up doing better.
Mr. BOB RICHARDSON (Rocky Acres Farm): I think it's a, you know, win-win situation. I think the consumers can be more at ease at peace of mind what's in their food supply, for one, and potentially it could raise the prices of finished product to us.
SMITH: Industry insiders say this may also be a first step toward ending the use of artificial growth hormones all together. Stanley Millay of the Maine Milk Commission says it won't be long before farmers who use hormones may soon find themselves unable to sell even to makers of secondary products like butter and cheese.
Mr. STANLEY MILLAY (Maine Milk Commission): And it's becoming more and more pressure and they eventually aren't going to have anyplace to put it. Just won't be any way to get rid of it. So the farmers, in other words, will have to stop using it.
SMITH: But as demand for hormone free dairy continues to grow, industry watchers say so too will the organic market. That not only excludes hormones but also forbids pesticides and antibiotics and alleviates many other consumer concerns about the environment and treatment of animals. As one insider put it, there will always be those people who will pay more to buy happy milk from happy cows.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.
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