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CONSUMER BEAT

Got growth hormone?

Dairies play on fear in marketing milk without the additive

PORTLAND, Maine -- Three years ago Oakhurst Dairy set out to differentiate its products from all the others in the supermarket dairy case -- by attaching labels stating that its farmers pledge not to inject their cows with an artificial growth hormone.

The labels, tapping into fears about the safety of the nation's milk supply, have resonated with consumers. Sales shot up 10 percent in each of the last three years, approaching $87 million this year. Oakhurst officials attribute a significant portion of the growth to their no-artificial-growth-hormone campaign.

With Oakhurst cutting into its market share in Northern New England, H.P. Hood responded by duplicating Oakhurst's strategy, even the wording of the labels, in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Garelick Farms appears to be moving in the same direction, also in Northern New England only. In January, Whole Foods Stores plans a chainwide launch of its own private-label milk from cows not injected with an artificial growth hormone.

But as the labels proliferate in Northern New England and begin to move south, they appear to be part of a very effective marketing campaign based more on fear than facts.

Existing scientific evidence overwhelmingly indicates that injecting cows with an artificial growth hormone to increase their milk production is not a food safety concern. The US Food and Drug Administration has repeatedly said there is no difference between milk from cows treated with the artificial hormone and milk from untreated cows.

Canada and the European Union have both banned the use of the artificial growth hormone on cows, but did so largely because of concerns about the health impact on cows, not humans.

Stanley T. Bennett II, the president of Oakhurst, walks a fine line in defending his carefully worded label. He says the label is designed to tell his customers something they want to know, but he also says he doesn't know whether his milk is any better than milk from cows treated with the artificial growth hormone.

"I don't know and I don't pretend to know. I don't understand genetic science," he said. "Ten years from now the product [artificial growth hormone] may be seen to be totally innocuous, but right now our customers are telling us they are concerned about it."

Monsanto Corp., the $4 billion St. Louis company that developed Posilac, the only bovine artificial growth hormone on the market, sued Oakhurst last month in federal district court in Boston, saying its labels may technically be accurate but are nevertheless deceptive because they imply that Oakhurst milk is safer and healthier. Monsanto sued a Texas and an Illinois dairy on the same grounds in 1994, settling both cases after the dairies adjusted their labels.

"Their milk is the same as everyone else's milk. Milk is milk," said Jennifer Garrett, director of technical services for Monsanto's dairy business.

Posilac, a synthetic version of the milk-inducing growth hormone that all cows produce naturally, was approved by the FDA a decade ago. Monsanto says one-third of the nation's dairy cattle are now injected with the artificial growth hormone every two weeks. The injections cost about $5.80 apiece and boost a cow's milk production by about a gallon a day.

Robert Cohen, the New Jersey-based coauthor of "Milk: The Deadly Poison," says consumers should stay away from all milk because it contains hormones that can be passed on to humans and spur growth and possibly cancer. He says all milk contains the hormones, but milk from cows injected with Posilac contains more of them, making it even more dangerous.

Cohen, who unsuccessfully petitioned the FDA to withdraw its approval of Posilac in 2000, said consumption of milk helps explain why the bodies of girls and boys are developing earlier and earlier. He also said Posilac spurs development of another growth hormone in cows called insulin growth factor-1 that gets passed along in milk. He said the insulin-like growth hormone has been linked with cancer and it's no accident that the world's highest milk consumption countries tend to have the highest rates of cancer.

"Milk is a very effective hormone delivery system," Cohen said.

Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center of Veterinary Medicine, acknowledged that all milk contains hormones but said the levels -- even in milk from cows treated with Posilac -- are insignificant.

"Mr. Cohen's views do not represent the scientific views of the United States or the rest of the world," Sundlof said. Bennett at Oakhurst said his customers began asking about artificial growth hormone shortly after the FDA approved Posilac in 1993. Over the next two years he began asking his farmers to sign affidavits promising not to use the artificial growth hormone on their cows.

In 1995, Maine revised the qualifications for its Quality Trademark Seal, which was originally intended to promote the sale of Maine-based commodities. Instead of merely requiring that milk carrying the seal come primarily from Maine farmers, the new rules required that the milk also come from farmers not using the artificial growth hormone on their cows.

As consumer questions persisted, Bennett decided in 2000 to publicize the dairy's policy by attaching a label to his milk stating: "Our farmers pledge: No artificial growth hormones." He is currently planning to attach similar labels to his fresh creams.

Ben & Jerry's, the Vermont-based ice cream company, also opposes the treatment of cows with the artificial growth hormone, but its label offers consumers more information than Oakhurst's. It says: "We oppose recombinant bovine growth hormone. The family farmers who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH. The FDA has said no significant difference has been shown and no test can now distinguish between milk from rBGH-treated and untreated cows."

Bennett said he saw no need to add the same qualifying statements to the Oakhurst label. "It didn't seem to be logical to qualify a negative like that," he said. "We convey the point simply and honestly."

Hood spokeswoman Lynne Bohan said the dairy copied Oakhurst's strategy to remain competitive. She said the Hood label on bottles in northern New England does not appear on Hood bottles in Massachusetts, Connecticut, or Rhode Island because consumers in those states have been less concerned about the hormone issue. She said the plants serving the Southern New England states have no prohibition on milk from cows injected with the artificial growth hormone.

"I wouldn't call it a scare tactic marketing campaign," Bohan said of the hormone labels. "It's a marketing message." She said Hood believes there is no taste or nutritional difference between the milk Hood sells in Northern New England and the milk it sells in Southern New England.

In barring the sale of Posilac in Canada in 1999, officials there said they found no significant risk to human safety by drinking milk from cows treated with the artificial growth hormone. But they said cattle treated with Posilac faced sharply higher risk of udder inflammation, infertility, and lameness.

Dick Woodger, a dairy farmer in Granville who has been injecting his cows with Posilac for the last four years, said his animals have suffered no harm and his milk production has increased. He said it's unclear how much Posilac has improved his bottom line, since his cows are also eating more feed.

For consumers, the dairy case is becoming more and more confusing. Instead of just choosing between skim, 1 percent, or whole milk, many consumers are also being asked to select a milk based on how the supplying cows are treated.

There is little, if any, price difference between milk from cows treated with the artificial growth hormones and cows that aren't. (Oakhurst says it pays a slight premium for its milk.) But organic milk, which represents 3 percent of the overall $10.1 billion US milk market, costs roughly twice as much.

Organic milk comes from cows that not only eat organic hay and grain (made with no pesticides, herbicides or fungicides) but also are never treated with antibiotics or growth hormone. Horizon Organic, the largest producer of organic milk, including the Organic Cow brand, said its farmers treat their sick cows with aspirin, massage, and other natural remedies.

Bennett, whose dairy's slogan is "the natural goodness of Maine," said he envies the organic label. "Philosophically, we'd love to go organic," he said, "but pure and simple it's too expensive."

Ronald Kleinman, chief of the pediatric, gastroenterology, and nutrition division at the Massachusetts General Hospital, said consumers shouldn't agonize over the choice between regular milk, organic milk, and milk from cows not treated with the artificial growth hormone.

"They can pick any one of the three and basically they're going to get the same exact milk," he said. "The products are exactly the same."

Bruce Mohl can be reached at mohl@globe.com.

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