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The Role of the Scientist in the Debate on Bovine Somatotropin and Organic Milk
MRIC 2007/08

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"The Role of the Scientist in the Debate on Bovine Somatotropin and Organic Milk"

September 4th 
Mark McGuire - Animal and Veterinary Sciences

Abstract: The Idaho dairy industry is the 4th largest in the nation and a significant economic force contributing 11.5% of the state's gross domestic product in 2005. Milk produced on the farm is typically sold to food processors as a commodity with bonuses paid for milk "quality," based upon composition. Recently, some processors have begun to sell dairy products labeled as "organic" or "rbST-free," and some grocery chains are requiring milk to be "rbST-free."

To many consumers, the presence of these labels suggests that the product is of higher quality or provides greater health benefits, particularly if one notices the price on the shelf. As such, this labeling has caused some to question the health and safety of conventional milk. These labels, however, refer to agricultural practices and choices made by farmers and food producers - not necessarily to the healthfulness or safety of the product. Indeed, substantial published refereed research clearly demonstrates that neither "organic" nor "rbST-free" milk is different from conventional milk.

In other words, as far as scientists and analytical chemists can tell, products produced conventionally are the same as those produced "organically" or without the use of rbST. Thus, although there may be other implications of organic or rbST-free milk production, carrying labels as such only creates the illusion that the product provides additional nutrients or is safer. Indeed, dairy management practices are poorly understood by society. This should not be a surprise, as less than 0.1% of the U.S. population is involved in milk production and processing. For example, some interested in "organic" milk believe they are supporting a more sustainable, family-farm approach to dairying. Yet the reality is that two commercial companies represent 80% of the organic retail space in grocery stores.

Scientists need to clarify that these labels are not founded on health and safety issues but have been created to provide consumers with an indication of a handful of agricultural and industrial practices used in the production of the milk. This likely occurs at the expense of the lion's share of dairy producers (mostly family farm-based businesses), as little money is actually paid to the producer for accepting management strategies (such as denying the use of rbST or implementing "organic" practices) that limit profitability. Accuracy in labeling is of economic significance to the consumer as well because the retailer can charge higher milk prices based on an inaccurate or misleading labels providing no benefit to the consumer. Thus, labeling of milk should be based upon a scientific need rather than for the marketing advantage of the processor or grocer.

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