This past week, I was the guest of the International Dairy Foods Association at their 2010 Dairy Summit. I love listening in at industry events like this, and in this case I was invited to speak on a panel called "What Do Consumers Want – Really?" I was there alongside a PR woman, a market research guru, and an exec from a major cheese company. I want to say upfront that I appreciated the healthy, respectful debate and I commend IDFA for inviting an alternative viewpoint to their conference.
I wrote up the panel I was on here but I’d like to speak to a broader topic that goes beyond dairy here today. However, I’d like to illustrate a larger point by describing a speech I heard given at the Dairy Forum. It was given by the President of Elanco, a subsidiary of Eli Lilly, Jeff Simmons. I knew Elanco only because they purchased rbGH – recombinant bovine growth hormone – from Monsanto a year or two ago. rbGH is not allowed in some countries. It increase the production a secondary hormone (IGF-1) that is identical in both people and cows. The milk from cows treated with rbGH has elevated levels of IGF-1, and IGF-1 is linked to some human cancers. The research isn’t all in on this from what I have heard, but WHY would you risk it until you are 100% sure that it’s safe?
Here’s where it gets tricky. Some Americans don’t mind drinking milk from cows treated with rBGH. Some Americans DO mind drinking it. But for pete’s sake, some Americans choose to smoke cigarettes! Not every person in this country wants to make healthy choices. We should at least make the facts available to them so they know when they are taking a risk. We do that for cigarettes, after all. As of now, the federal government thinks rbGH is JUST FINE and there’s no significant difference between milk from cows treated with it and milk from untreated cows. So now labels or warnings appear on any milk. Sometimes you’ll see milk with an "rbGH-free" (or similar) label and often that comes along with a disclaimer that the FDA things rbGH is safe and makes no difference in the milk. Some states have tried to ban labeling milk as rbGH-free, although the only place they’ve had any success at all was Ohio. Due to consumer demand – NOT SAFETY RISKS – many dairy product companies and retailers have gone rbGH-free including Yoplait, Dannon, and even Wal-mart.
Elanco also makes other animal drugs for livestock. I’m less familiar with these, but I’m quite familiar with the issue of using drugs and hormones on livestock. Something like 70 percent of all antibiotics used in this country go to animals, and the majority go to animals that aren’t even sick. The reason? So we can keep animals in conditions that would otherwise be unhealthy to them and to promote faster growth. Ditto on the hormones. This harms the environment A LOT, it’s not terribly fun for the animals of course, and it produces antibiotic-resistant bacteria. That’s why there’s a bill in Congress right now called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA) that would ban the use of antibiotics in livestock for animals that aren’t sick. If an animal is sick, the bill still lets you give that animal drugs. Last, often raising animal this way results in less healthy meat. Imagine – if you ate nothing but corn and soy, would YOU be healthy? Neither are the animals. Especially animals whose bodies evolved to eat grass like cows.
So to start off, Jeff Simmons of Elanco, introduced his company as a company that makes products for sustainability. How does he justify that? I expect that if you take factory farming as your baseline way to raise animals, then products that bring the animals to market faster and reduce the amount of feed they need to grow would be "sustainable." Nevermind the antibiotic resistant bacteria, the cancer risks of IGF-1 in humans, the environmental harm, and the decreased health of the meat. The fact is that factory farming is NOT the default choice. Their logic is like telling people to "go green" by switching from a Hummer to a Ford Expedition. Of course, if we stop factory farming, we’d probably end up producing less meat, dairy, and eggs and it would be more expensive. And that, quite frankly, is as it should be. I’m not saying this because I want to deny people cheeseburgers and bacon or because I want them to go bankrupt paying for it. For our own healths, we need to eat less meat and better meat. There’s some pretty good science backing that one up.
So what does Simmons call for? "Choice and technology." That’s what he repeated over and over. "Choice" was also a theme echoed by the panelists on my own panel. Simmons says it’s fine if 5% of the market wants to eat organic foods but it’s NOT okay when 0.25% of the population tries to turn their own beliefs into policy. Well, that would be true if we were talking about some mean consumer who loved vanilla ice cream and thus decided to ban chocolate so everyone would have to eat vanilla. That makes no sense. But when you have an industry practice that puts consumers at risks (especially risks they do not know they are taking), harms the environment, or results in cruelty to humans and animals, it’s time to do something about it. That’s not an example of one mean consumer trying to impose his or her own personal eating habits on a population. That’s an example of consumer advocates trying to protect everyone from harms that profits corporations at the expense of everyone else.
Choice is a slippery slope. Of course choice is good. Everyone deserves choice. But is it really choice when you cover up the risks people are taking and sell a product as safe when it really isn’t? Or worse, if you sell that product as "healthy"? That’s denying people the right of making informed decisions.
As for technology, I would say to Simmons that it’s not about using ALL technology but the BEST and MOST APPROPRIATE technologies. The atom bomb is highly advanced technology but we didn’t use it in Iraq. It would be wrong. There’s a good reason we don’t use that technology. Furthermore, truly sustainable food production is highly scientific. It is often dismissed as unscientific or antiscientific – one panelist at the dairy forum referred to it as going back to the 1700s – but that’s entirely false. The difference between sustainable food production (agroecology is my preferred term, as it implies that we are using ecology to do agriculture) and the quick fix technology that dominates the market today is that agroecology views the natural world as a biological system and treats it as such whereas industrial ag treats it as a machine. Agroecological practices try to work with nature to improve the food produced (and profit farmers!) whereas industrial ag tries to overcome nature. It’s that simple.
Then there’s the question of corporate-funded studies. There are plenty of these floating around the dairy industry (and probably most industries). In dairy, there’s a pretty well-known study that "proves" that factory dairy farming and even rbGH makes dairy "greener" compared to organics. But the devil is in the details. Instead of comparing modern organics they compared dairy farming in 1944 to conventional dairy farming today. They say that farming in 1944 is similar to today’s organic farming so their 1944 numbers represent today’s organics. They fail to mention that due to advances in the last 50+ years (particularly advances in breeding), today’s average organic dairy cow produces almost THREE TIMES as much milk as a cow in 1944. Conventional cows of today produce even more than that, but the difference is FAR less significant. I don’t know what the results of the study would be if we compared modern organic cows to modern conventional ones, but I do know that the study is flawed and should not be accepted as fact.
Simmons also presented some market research data that looked funny to me. He noted that 50% of people list disease as a food safety concern but only 1% list biotech. Well, the survey only let people choose ONE choice. That means if someone cares about E. coli AND GMOs, they can only pick one. When I hear "food safety" I think of things like E. coli and Salmonella. I am highly concerned about GMOs but I worry about them for environmental reasons first and foremost and also for economic reasons because they consolidate control over seeds into so few hands. I probably wouldn’t pick biotech as my top food safety concern either. But if you let me choose more than one food safety concern, I’d certainly say that I was worried about it. In other words, these numbers are invalid.
All in all, there’s some pretty slick PR coming out of the food industry today, but upon some scrutiny, a lot of it’s bull. Unfortunately, they are telling a lot of people (including consumers) what they want to hear, so they often don’t get called on it.