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    The Milky Way: Grocers Keep Churning Out Hormone-free Milk

    The operators taking the hormone-free plunge, some of them major players in their markets and even nationally, cite growing shopper demand for such unaltered dairy products as the reason. But opponents to the movement say it's curdling conventional milk's reputation.

    Major grocers around the country have been introducing milk products that are free of the artificial growth hormone recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). They say it's in response to rising consumer demand, but the offerings haven't been entirely free of controversy.

    In late March, Ukrop's Super Markets, Inc. officially changed its Ukrop's brand and Richfood milk and cream products to be rBST hormone-free. The Richmond, Va.-based regional retailer cites its customers' increased requests for more artificial hormone-free dairy options as the reason for the switchover.

    The transition affected some 13 milk and cream products offered under the Ukrop's brand in all 29 of its stores in Richmond, Williamsburg, Fredericksburg, and Roanoke, Va. Ukrop's customers can choose rBST hormone-free products from a full range of options: whole, 2 percent, 1 percent, skim, half & half, and whipping cream.

    The grocer says it will also continue to offer its full selection of Full Circle brand organic milk and dairy products. Produced under the strict requirements of the National Organic Program, these products are rBST-free as well as antibiotic-free.

    Ukrop's adds that its own brand of milk and cream products is the most popular choice among customers, accounting for 82 percent of milk and cream sales.

    Also in late March, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. made the switch, announcing that its Great Value milk is now being sourced exclusively from cows that haven't been treated with artificial growth hormones. Wal-Mart's Sam's Club banner is also exclusively offering milk selections from suppliers that have pledged not to treat cows with rBST.

    Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart notes that while the FDA has said that milk from cows treated with rBST poses no risk to human health, many customers nonetheless are telling Wal-Mart they want to have access to milk without it.

    Other retailers that have rolled out rBST-free dairy products include Spartan, Meijer, Tops, and Trader Joe's.

    Meanwhile, The Kroger Co. and chemical company Monsanto are engaged in a state-by-state debate concerning how milk should be labeled in Kroger's stores.

    The Cincinnati-based mega-grocer wants its milk products in over 3,200 grocery and convenience stores to display a label saying that milk produced and sold by its own dairy plants is free of rBST, which Monsanto produces.

    Monsanto opposes the proposed label change, however, claiming it's disparaging to a legal and appropriate additive. The chemical company maintains that if Kroger is permitted to use the label, it will have no way to defend claims that the bovine supplement is unsafe. Monsanto has so far fought labeling plans in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Utah, reports the Cincinnati Enquirer.

    "There is absolutely no difference in the milk," protests Monsanto spokeswoman Lori Hoag.

    Kroger maintains that its motivation for using the label is rising demand from consumers. Says spokeswoman Meghan Glynn, "There's increasing customer interest in this issue. We are getting a lot of calls on this."

    Kroger was required to change its no-rBST labels after Ohio governor Ted Strickland issued an emergency order in February to prevent the retailer from using the label. Kroger proposed a two-part label, with one line saying that the milk came from cows that were not treated with artificial bovine growth hormone, and another line in smaller print explaining that the FDA had found that the hormone rBST was safe, according to the newspaper report.

    The International Dairy Food Association is apparently acknowledging the claims of Kroger and other retailers that there is a groundswell of hormone-free demand. "Let's be clear about one thing," says IDFA executive Jerry Slominski. "The reason why processors are marketing products with absence claims is simply because consumers are demanding it. If you don't believe me, just ask parents who buy milk for their children if they prefer milk from cows that have not been treated with artificial hormones."

    Both sides now wait, as regulators ponder the issue and the label remains absent from Kroger's milk products. The Ohio Department of Agriculture has asked the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review to endorse its decision to allow the label. A ruling is expected by early April.

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