Grocers Wary of Bst Issue
Robert Steyer Of the Post-Dispatch, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
The latest food fight has dairy producers and supermarkets performing a balancing act of assuring consumers, obeying federal laws and protecting against protests.
Some companies are performing verbal gymnastics as they decide if they will accept dairy products made with milk from cows injected with BST. This genetically engineered drug raises cows' milk production by 10 to 20 percent.
BST, made by Monsanto Co., went on sale Friday and is supported by many medical, grocery and dairy groups. They say it will lower milk prices and make dairy farming more efficient.
BST is denounced by critics ranging from Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, to Jeremy Rifkin's Foundation on Economic Trends, the most persistent and vocal opponent of the drug. They say the drug was inadequately tested and will cause an oversupply of milk.
Some companies immediately said they wouldn't accept milk from BST-injected cows.
But others hedged their bets in ways that came as no surprise to John W. Erdman Jr., director of the nutritional sciences division at the University of Illinois.
"Grocery stores don't want somebody picketing their small (profit) margin operations," Erdman said. "They don't make much money on milk anyway. They can't take a chance."
Because consumers are mystified by biotechnology, "it's easy for Jeremy Rifkin to raise just a little bit of doubt," Erdman added.
Supermarkets and dairy producers have every right to be nervous, added Mona Doyle, founder of The Consumer Network Inc., a market research firm in Philadelphia.
"When we looked at this over a year ago, we said the industry would be crazy to do it," she said. "We said consumers would see this as an engineered food rather than nature's food."
The BST debate provoked three policy statements in two weeks from the giant dairy producer Borden Inc.
On Jan. 25, the company wrote Rifkin's group saying it would "not knowingly accept raw milk from cows treated with supplemental BST." Borden said it asked for and got "writen commitments" from suppliers.
Three days later, Borden released a statement that reaffirmed its policy of "not knowingly" accepting milk from BST-injected cows.
But because there is no test to distinguish natural BST from synthetic BST, Borden said it cannot guarantee that its products exclude milk from BST-injected cows. "The public can be confident that milk and meat from BST-treated cows is safe to consume," Borden said.
By Feb. 3, Borden had dropped any reference to "not knowingly" accepting milk from BST-injected cows. Because it has "complete confidence" in the FDA's review of BST and because the public "can be confident" in the milk's safety, "Borden milk may include milk produced by BST-treated cows," it said.
Other companies, however, place no conditions on their opposition to BST.
The drug "is a solution to a problem that never existed," said Alan Parker, spokesman for Ben & Jerry's Homemade, the ice cream maker based in Waterbury, Vt.
Ben & Jerry's has told suppliers it won't take milk from cows that have been injected with BST.
It plans to place a label on its ice cream that says all milk and cream in its products come from "family farmers" who won't use Monsanto's drug. The label, expected to be printed within a week, adds that Monsanto's drug is a "synthetic growth hormone" approved by the FDA.
The FDA rejected appeals labels to signify milk from BST-injected cows, but it said companies may voluntarily label products if the notices "are not misleading. …