Monday, March 10, 2008

Got Posilac? Afact should be Ashamed

NYT reports on an advocacy group that is attempting to block the sale of milk produced without synthetic hormones.
The group, called American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology, or Afact, says it is a grass-roots organization that came together to defend members’ right to use recombinant bovine somatotropin, also known as rBST or rBGH, an artificial hormone that stimulates milk production. It is sold by Monsanto under the brand name Posilac.

Monsanto spokespersons insist that the group is "led by farmers" even though it has been funded by both a marketing firm hired by Monsanto and by Monsanto itself. But we all know how to play "follow the money", so let's get to the cream of the matter:
Afact has come together as a growing number of consumers are choosing milk that comes from cows that are not treated with the artificial growth hormone. Even though the Food and Drug Administration has declared the synthetic hormone safe, many other countries have refused to approve it, and there is lingering concern among many consumers about its impact on health and the welfare of cows.

The marketplace has responded, and now everyone from Whole Foods Market to Wal-Mart Stores sells milk that is labeled as coming from cows not treated with the hormone. Some dairy industry veterans say it’s only a matter of time before nearly all of the milk supply comes from cows that weren’t treated with Posilac. According to Monsanto, about a third of the dairy cows in the United States are in herds where Posilac is used.

And the trend might not stop with milk. Kraft is planning to sell cheese labeled as having come from untreated cows.

But consumer demand for more natural products has conflicted with some dairy farmers’ desire to use the artificial hormone to bolster production and bottom lines, and it has certainly interfered with Monsanto’s business plan for Posilac. (bold mine)

Note the flow of the process: consumers choose, the market responds, and producers who are interested in continuing business adapt to what consumers demand through the free market. In this case, consumers have potentially legitimate concerns not only about the health impacts of the products, but also about animal welfare concerns – both of which are valid factors in the consumer choice algorithm. And in this case, the burden of proof is not on the consumer to show the safety of non-rBST milk, but on the industry to reassure the consumer that rBST-enhanced milk is of comparable safety and quality – as soon as we forget where the burden of proof lies in this, we undermine our rights as consumers to choose what we eat and drink.

The central question at the heart of this issue is whether we should make an exception to the paradigm of consumer-driven marketing that is supposed to be a mainstay of a capitalist and free-market economy. Yes, producers should be free to choose whichever methods they like to make their product, so long as it is within basic safety standards established by federal regulation and is accurately labeled to allow consumers to choose their products. But in the end, it is supposed to be the consumer who is allowed to choose which brand and which type of product they exchange their money for to take home. In other words, you have a right to sell whatever you want, but you don't have a right to make other people buy it if they don't want it – Capitalism 101.

If there were a risk of negative impacts on consumers for choosing milk without artificial hormones, then there may be a case for debate. But when the argument is fueled by economic protectionism of what is essentially a monopoly on a technological intervention designed, not for consumer health, but for increased productivity and profit, there is no debate. The rights of consumers to choose the product they want trump the rights of industry to skew the rules of capitalism in order to make a profit. And the right to use a technology should never be conflated with a mandate to use a technology unless there is an urgent and severe threat to public health.

I would like to add that it is ridiculous that we are now on the defensive on this issue – forced to defend the rights of consumers to even buy milk that is produced using more favorable methods. Don't forget that the FDA already requires all milk produced without rBST to be labeled with a disclaimer stating that there is no recognizable difference between milk treated with and not treated with artificial growth hormones; this is a blatant kowtow to the interests of conventional milk producers and their supporting biotech industries to protect their economic interests.

Apparently, consumers think there is a difference.

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