Wal-Mart move 'tipping point' for GM-hormone milk (23/3/2008)

EXTRACT: 'It's reached the tipping point. Even Wal-Mart's customers are demanding milk free from genetically engineered hormones.'
Wal-Mart move 'tipping point' for non-hormone milk
Globe and Mail (Canada), March 22 2008

Organic food proponents will remember Thursday as the day the ground shifted.

Giant food retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced that its store brand milk in the United States will now come exclusively from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones.

The move sends a powerful signal to food manufacturers about the growing mainstream demand for health food products. With Wal-Mart already the largest retailer of organic milk in the U.S., it has been clear that consumers interested in greener food products are no longer the narrow group of back-to-the-earth types and wealthy urban yuppies.

'It's reached the tipping point,' said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association in the U.S., who has spent years campaigning against the use of hormones designed to boost milk production by up to 15 per cent in dairy cows.

'Even Wal-Mart's customers are demanding milk free from genetically engineered hormones.'

Similar demands are growing in Canada, with mainstream grocery retailers like Loblaw Cos. Ltd. introducing reams of new products to meet mainstream demands for organic and 'green' foods. Canada, however, banned artificial growth hormones for dairy cows in 1998, so is not affected by the milk changes sweeping the United States.

'I think things are accelerating now and people are getting more health conscious and are getting more conscious about the connection between their personal health and the health of the environment,' Mr. Cummins said.

Grocery chain Kroger Co., with 2,500 stores in the U.S., began last month selling only milk produced without the use of hormones like recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). Safeway Inc., with more than 1,700 stores, has switched its in-store brands to non-rBST milk, though it also sells other brands produced from cows given the hormone. And starting in January, Starbucks Corp. has only used non-rBST milk in its stores.

As the largest grocery retailer in the United States with more than 4,000 locations, however, Wal-Mart was the 'big get' for consumer advocates.

The retailer said Thursday that its change was prompted by consumer demands. 'Many Wal-Mart customers have expressed a desire for milk choices,' the company's release said. The change means Wal-Mart's Great Value store brand milk will be rBST-free, as will milk offered at the company's Sam's Club warehouse locations.

'We've listened to customers and are pleased that our suppliers are helping us offer Great Value milk from cows that are not treated with rBST,' said Wal-Mart general merchandise manager Pam Kohn.

In the U.S., non-rBST milk has become a cheaper alternative to milk that is fully organic. Mr. Cummins said it appeals to many consumers who want to avoid the hormones but are unwilling to pay the far larger premium for organic milk. 'When you look at all the surveys of consumer attitudes about food safety, hormones consistently rank way up there, along with pesticides,' he said.

Most dairy farmers do not use the artificial hormones, which were first approved by the U.S. Drug Administration in 1993, so the impact on the industry from Wal-Mart's announcement will be incremental rather than dramatic. Mr. Cummins said USDA statistics show 18 per cent of U.S. dairy cows were given artificial hormones in 2006.

David Darr, vice-president of public affairs for Dairy Farmers of America Inc., a major U.S. producer of milk and dairy products, said yesterday that there is already a lot of non-rBST milk available.

'There are more dairy farms across the U.S. that don't use it than do,' he said. 'And the farms that did use the technology, they did not necessarily use it on every cow.'

His firm, a co-operative owned by 18,000 dairy farmers, has members who produce both kinds of milk.

'We continue to try to give our members a choice on what technology they use, and try to find markets for milk however they want to produce it,' he said. 'But we are also cognizant and recognize the needs of our customers and try to give them what they want.'

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