Dairy farms in tight squeeze over use of hormones
Share with others:
GROVE CITY, Pa. -- The first letter from Dairy Marketing Services arrived in August, containing what John Ligo saw as a not-so-veiled threat.
Mr. Ligo, who has 200 milking cows on his farm here, has used recombinant bovine somatotropin to increase his herd's milk production since the hormone treatment entered the market in 1994.
It was safe. It was legal. It was profitable. It was not controversial -- then.
Mr. Ligo, an intelligent and often blunt man, had quit his job as a loan officer to take up dairy farming in 1990. He bought the land from his father, also a dairy farmer, but not to embody some quaint notion about tending the family plot.
"I knew I could make money," said Mr. Ligo, who graduated from Penn State with a degree in agriculture business management.
And this letter, it seemed, threatened a practice that had helped him build his 1,000-acre LiTerra Farm.
Dairy Marketing Service's customers, the letter said, increasingly were requesting milk from cows not treated with rbST. Kroger, the Cincinnati-based grocery chain, was one of the first, and several more DMS clients followed suit -- including Dean Foods, the largest dairy distributor in the country. Though the letter stated DMS wouldn't "force" anyone to drop the use of rbST, it suggested exactly that.
When Mr. Ligo followed up, a company representative confirmed his suspicion -- DMS no longer would accept his milk unless he signed an affidavit by Jan. 1 saying he'd stopped using rbST.
If Mr. Ligo chooses to hold out -- and he said last week he still hadn't decided -- he has few options. Some smaller marketers still will accept milk from cows treated with rbST, but DMS, which serves more than 2,100 producers in the Northeast, holds plenty of sway.
"DMS is the 800-pound gorilla," Mr. Ligo said. "They make the rules and they go hard on people that don't play by the rules."
Mr. Ligo's predicament is at the core of a fight brewing in Harrisburg about rbST. In October, state Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff announced that dairy products cannot contain so-called "absence labeling," which includes claims that the milk comes from cows not treated with rbST.
In other words, rbST-free producers would get no advantage in the marketplace.
Initially meant to be enforced starting Jan. 1, the ruling was met with harsh public backlash and has been delayed indefinitely while under review by the governor's office, a process that will take months.
Groups from across the country targeted Pennsylvania, the first state to issue such a restriction, for infringing on the right of consumers to know how their dairy products are produced.
And earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission rejected requests by Monsanto, the St. Louis-based company that is the sole manufacturer of the hormone, to ban rbST-free labels.
The complaints are indicative rbST-free production is on the rise.
Safeway, Costco, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods Market, in addition to Kroger, sell rbST-free products. These days, consumers are more wary of how their food is produced and are demanding rbST-free milk, paying an average of 25 percent more for it.
Not much of the markup ends up with the producers, according to Mr. Ligo and others.
A second letter to Mr. Ligo from DMS, which arrived last week, said the company had negotiated a premium of about 6.7 cents per gallon from Kroger, far less than 25 percent.
And Mr. Ligo figures to see only a fraction of that 6.7 cents, if anything at all. The letter stated DMS might pay farmers a premium, but it's subject to change or elimination at any point.
"Processors and marketers have made big bucks from it," said Alan Blair, director of dairy industry relations for Pennsylvania Dairy Stakeholders. "And that is not getting passed on to farmers."
What's in the syringe?
To some, rbST is the bovine equivalent of steroids in baseball. To others, it's just a booster shot.
The drug, marketed as Posilac, comes in single-dose syringes for injecting 500 mgs of fluid into a cow once every two weeks. According to Monsanto, about one-third of the nation's 9 million dairy cows are in herds that use rbST.
The drug boosts naturally occurring bovine somatotropin. Treatment begins when a cow's 14-month lactation cycle is at its peak, usually about 110 pounds per day. Production from untreated cows drops off about 10 percent a month from there, but rbST slows the downward curve, making cows give more milk for longer periods of time.
Posilac costs Mr. Ligo about 40 cents per day per cow, but he said it was hard to quantify the actual return. The cows produce more milk, but they eat more, too, increasing feed costs.
"I use it because it's industrywide accepted as efficient and safe," Mr. Ligo said.
For cattle, the much-documented risk -- and one reason the drug is banned in several countries, including Japan and the European Union -- is an increase in udder infections, which are common in cows that produce the most milk.
Also, though no scientific consensus exists, some studies have suggested there are risks to human health, mostly relating to higher levels of insulin growth factor, or IGF-1, in milk from rbST-treated cows. High levels of that in humans have been linked to certain types of cancer.
Under Food and Drug Administration rules, companies whose labels say their milk comes from untreated cows must also specify that there is no difference in the healthiness or quality of the milk.
Opponents of labeling restrictions note that oft-disputed health risks aren't the only reason consumers are going rbST-free.
"Whether or not people believe the product is any different, consumers ought to be able to support a system of agriculture with their food dollars," said Leslie Zuck, executive director of Pennsylvania Certified Organic.
"They want a natural way of producing food more in harmony with the environment."
Organic production, because it has an independent verification process, is not in jeopardy under the state Department of Agriculture's ruling. Organic milk cannot come from rbST-treated cows.
Dairy advocates in support of rbST worry that banning its use is just the beginning, as more and more farming technologies could be eliminated.
"From a science standpoint, it's a scary situation, frankly," Mr. Blair said. "It's unfortunate that the American public is not willing to trust good science. And in the end, we'll pay dearly."
Though he has used rbST for years, Mr. Ligo is hardly a Monsanto poster boy.
In addition to his letters from DMS, he showed off glossy postcards and newsletters from Monsanto calling on its customers to assail the anti-rbST movement.
One displays a dairy farmer from North Carolina who was told to stop administering rbST.
"We couldn't justify losing 9.5 pounds of milk," per cow per day, the glum farmer says.
"There's some hyperbole here, too," Mr. Ligo said with a chuckle.
Monsanto's correspondence asks farmers to write letters to legislators and form organized opposition to companies that demand rbST-free milk.
When asked if he has contributed to any of these efforts, Mr. Ligo smiled and shook his head.
He predicts his profits won't be affected too much in the long term by the loss of rbST. If the rbST-free trend continues, he reasoned, it will reduce the overall milk supply, and prices will rise to compensate.
It would hurt in the short term, though, and Mr. Ligo said he worries about smaller operations that won't be able to survive the hit.
The ruling from Mr. Wolff, the state agriculture secretary, would help this quandary, in theory, but most of Mr. Ligo's milk is sold out of state and DMS shows little sign of budging -- as long as Dean Foods and others stay the course.
"This is an economic decision for an effort to meet customer demand and return maximum profit back to farmers we serve," said Heather Schofield, spokeswoman for Dairy Farmers of America, which works with DMS in this area. Ms. Schofield said nearly 85 percent of more than 575 producer clients in Western Pennsylvania have signed the affidavit to stop using rbST by Jan. 1.
Mr. Wolff and his supporters have contended that farmers in these situations might sign the affidavits but continue to use the hormone. For Mr. Ligo, that is not an option.
"You don't get a reputation by having integrity 99 percent of the time," Mr Ligo said. Then he paused, let out a sigh and stared straight ahead.
"At the same time, I don't like being coerced."
First Published December 16, 2007 12:00 am