The company announced that by August this year it plans to eliminate all milk sourced from cows treated with (recombinant bovine somatotropin), a synthetic hormone that promotes milk production in cows.
Also known as rBGH, the hormone was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993, but has nevertheless generated heated opposition from consumers wishing to avoid it.
This has resulted in a host of milk and other dairy products carrying ‘rBST-free’ labels, which have, in turn, been accused of unfairly skewing the market against products that do not carry the labels.
No safety concerns
General Mills said that although the safety of milk sourced from cows treated with rBST is not questionable, its move is designed to “provide consumers with the option” of avoiding the hormone.
““While the safety of milk from cows treated with rBST is not at issue, our consumers were expressing a preference for milk from cows not treated with rBST – and we responded,” said Becky O’Grady, General Mills vice president of marketing for the Yoplait brand.
The company estimates that it already sources over 70 per cent of its milk from cows not treated with rBST. By August 2009, 100 per cent of its milk will be ‘rBST-free’, it said.
“Consumers are demonstrating greater support for milk and milk products from cows not treated with rBST. So-called ‘rBST-free’ milk is more difficult to source, but companies such as General Mills are making the switch to ‘rBST-free’ milk nonetheless,” said the firm.
Consumer activist group Citizens for Health, which has long been campaigning against the hormone, said the commitment by General Mills is “a reminder of what the voice of the people can do when our efforts are concerted”.
Last year, the group had mounted a campaign demanding that General Mills discontinue the use of rBST in its Yoplait yoghurts. It is now urging its members to support General Mills in its decision in order to pre-empt pressure from the pro-rBST camp.
On the other side of the fence, American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT), which promotes the use of technology in farming, is urging its members to contact General Mills and tell them "why consumers, processors and the environment will lose with the loss of technologies used in agriculture".
In August last year, leading biotechnology firm Monsanto exited the rBST market with the sale of its Posilac brand of bovine somatotropin growth hormone.
Although the move was considered a major development in the rBST-free debate, Monsanto did not link the sale to the negative consumer environment, saying instead that it planed to focus on its core seeds and traits business.