QUINCY, Mass. - Stop & Shop here has introduced milk free of the synthetic growth hormone rBST in its New England stores.
Of the chain's 385 stores, 240 are carrying the rBST-free milk under Garelick Farms and H.P. Hood labels, said Robert Keane, spokesman for Stop & Shop, a division of Ahold. In the future, Stop & Shop could offer the synthetic hormone-free milk under its own label but that decision has not been finalized, he added.
The retailer's decision to carry the product comes in response to Garelick Farms and H.P. Hood offering an adequate supply of rBST-free milk for distribution. Both divisions of Dallas-based Dean Foods, Garelick and H.P. Hood are major New England dairy suppliers.
Garelick Farms is one of 10 Dean-owned plants in various parts of the country that is now asking their dairy producers to deliver rBST-free milk, said Marguerite Copel, the company's vice president, corporate communications. Dean Foods, one of the country's largest milk processors, owns 100 milk-processing plants, and supplies 35% of the nation's milk supply.
"It's just a smattering now, but we're watching it across the country, the demand and the consumer response where we are offering it," Copel said, referring to the emerging interest in hormone-free milk. "Expanding it will depend on that, and on the supply available."
"Right now, this initiative is driven by three things: customer demand, consumer interest and the supply is there," Copel said.
"[Dean's effort] is not definitive, but certainly directional," Copel continued. "Look at the interest in organic. Horizon is one of our companies, and we're seeing 20% growth per year there."
The synthetic growth hormone, called Posilac by its manufacturer, Monsanto, St. Louis, is injected in one-third of the nation's dairy herds to increase milk production, according to Monsanto.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved use of the growth hormone in 1993, consumers have voiced concerns about health issues - their own and the cows.
While there's been no evidence rBST, a synthetic version of a hormone cows produce naturally, has harmful effects on either cows or humans, some people have theorized that artificially producing more milk could put such stress on the cow that it would need to be given more antibiotics.
"The FDA and various health organizations worldwide have said the synthetic hormone is safe and that there's no difference in milk containing it and other milk," said Katie Koppenhoefer, communications manager for the International Dairy Foods Association, Washington.
"But we are seeing more companies recently who have chosen not to use it and are labeling their milk that way, including Dean and H.P. Hood."
The market Dean is targeting could welcome rBST-free milk because the retail price, even though it's at a premium, is lower than certified organic milk which is more costly for dairy farmers to produce due to the expense and relative scarcity of organic feed. Transitioning dairy farms from conventional to organic production is also costly.
Indeed, industry experts said rBST-free milk is retailing for at least $1 less per half gallon than the retail for certified organic milk.
Stop & Shop officials declined to say what the retail price of the synthetic hormone-free milk is. SN, however, discovered that a half-gallon container of Garelick brand, rBST-free, whole milk at a Stop & Shop unit in Dedham, Mass., was retailing for $2.69. A half gallon of regular, whole milk there is $2.19, a dairy department associate said.
Furthermore, SN observed that certified organic milk at other Stop & Shop stores was retailing for $3.69 to $3.99 per half gallon.
The premium price for rBST-free milk is related to production per cow, explained Jerry Dryer, a Delray Beach, Fla.-based dairy and food market analyst.
Without the synthetic hormone, production is as much as 10 pounds per cow less per day. In addition, processors need to run parallel systems - one conventional and one rBST-free. That, plus running smaller volumes, raises unit costs, Dryer said.
Dryer and other industry sources applauded the emergence of the rBST-free milk at a time when consumer interest in healthy food alternatives is high.
"It's a great idea," he said. "Consumers want, and need, choices, and this gives them another option at the dairy case."
Some smaller dairies including Publix Super Markets began offering rBST-free milk earlier this year, Dryer said.
But the effort in New England, and Dean's recent initiatives in other parts of the country, mark the first large-scale introduction, sources said.