Most of the milk I buy has a small label saying that it comes from cows not treated with rBST (recombinant bovine growth hormone.) Ironically, the not-made-with-rBST costs the same, sometimes even less, than its less holistic counterpart. But getting more milk out of cows with chemical stimulation, it seems, isn’t more profitable than getting it out of them without it.
But perhaps I should backtrack for a moment and tell you the story of rBST and dairy cows. In the early 1990s, the FDA approved its use as a tool for dairies to increase their milk production. The FDA studies didn’t see any differences in the milk from cows with rBST and those without, so the FDA ruled that milk from rBST-treated cows did not have to be labelled as anything unique.
The organic food industry, which didn’t cotton to rBST, responded by creating labels for its dairy products saying “from cows not treated with rBST.” I bought the regular milk, which didn’t have those labels, since I didn’t want to pay the premium price organic foods command.
But then, reports of problems with the hormone started trickling out. It wasn’t that rBST-produced milk was bad for humans, but that it was bad for the cows. The cows were getting sick by producing so much milk day after day. The farmers, who’d had to pay for the rBST now had to pay even more for antibiotics. The veterinarian bills and cow down time swallowed up the profits of additional milk production.
For a brief moment in time, organic milk was actually cheaper than the store brand. Shortly afterwards, more milk brands–not organic ones–started carrying the little labels announcing that their milk, too, came from cows not treated with rBST. Smart & Final milk comes from non-treated cows; Trader Joe’s milk does, too. A few months ago, Safeway–or at least this region’s Safeway–stopped the use of rBST in its own dairy farms. The Organic Consumers Association attributed it to a consumer campaign, but I think economics played a bigger role in the decision than a few postcards from particularly motivated Oregonians.
I wonder if farmers will stop using rBST altogether, on their own, for economic reasons, and make the little labels ubiquitous and/or irrelevant in the near future.