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Turning the key on new food technologies

23-Feb-2009

Consumer concerns about a synthetic growth hormone used in milk production have prompted two leading food producers in the United States – General Mills and Dannon – to reformulate their dairy product lines. It is a decision that will have immediate implications on the dairy market as a whole, but could also mark a turning point in the use of new technologies in food production in general.

rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), a synthetic hormone that promotes milk production in cows, was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1993.

Since then, it slipped into the milk supply chain in the country, used as a means to improve production capacity and efficiency.

The United States has traditionally been at the frontline for the use of new technologies in food production – led by the introduction of genetic modification for some crops, which has now become mainstream.

But the case of rBST is now demonstrating that US consumers are not willing to take anything thrown at them. They recognize their purchasing power and have used it to generate change.

Supply before demand

Both General Mills and Dannon said their commitment to move away from milk sourced from rBST-treated cows is a direct result of consumer demand. “This is largely a result of our contact with consumers – when they call or write to us we react to what they have to say,” Dannon told us.

Together, the two companies claim around two thirds of the entire US dairy market. Their rejection of a technology that has been approved as safe by FDA will essentially wipe out its use in the large part of the dairy market.

The commitment follows years of campaigning by consumer groups, and a heated debate regarding the use of ‘rBST-free’ labels on some dairy products, which were accused of eroding the market for those items that did not carry them.

Smaller dairy firms will now be seriously reconsidering their use of milk sourced from cows treated with the hormone, as they risk being squeezed out of the market.

Monsanto, the much criticized biotechnology firm, last year exited the rBST market with the sale of its Posilac brand of bovine somatotropin growth hormone. Although the firm didn’t link the sale to the negative consumer environment, the timing does hint at signs of market awareness.

Warning signs

Simple economics for any business dictate the power of supply and demand: Without the second, the first becomes redundant. The use of new technologies in food production is no exception.

Can the benefits and safety of a technology be adequately communicated to the people expected to embrace them? In some cases, as with rBST, industry learns the hard way that the initial answer to this question was wrong.

In other cases, the answer is uncertain from the onset. This has kept the food industry reluctant to adopt some technologies, which have remained packed away on the shelf.

Irradiation is one example. This is a technology designed to kill pathogens on food by exposing it to X-rays, electron beams or gamma rays.

Although FDA recently approved its use to eliminate harmful bacteria from products such as spinach and lettuce, the method is still only being used on spices and mangoes. This limited uptake is a direct result of the costs associated with its implementation and an uncertain consumer environment.

Although proponents of the technology would argue that delaying its use is irresponsible, especially in light of the recent peanut contamination scenario, hesitation at this stage is much wiser and less damaging than withdrawal at a later stage.

Dairy product manufacturers will be evaluating the benefits and damages to their business of rBST as the technology appears to be making its exit.

Others would do better to consider these implications as the new technologies make their appearance. Those methods that strike particularly sensitive chords in consumers – such as cloning – will now send the warning lights flashing more clearly than ever before.

LorraineHeller is a specialist writer on food industry issues. If you would like to comment on this article, please write to lorraine.heller'at'decisionnews.com

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