RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Got Mock?

For years, we’ve seen celebrities challenging the camera, posing like kids sneaking a swig, the telltale white mustache evidence that milk, real milk from cows, is their secret addiction.

Milk prices at the grocery store have risen, so the campaign must be successful, right? But dairy farmers, who pay for the ads, are going under.

And now, products like the sports drink “Muscle Milk” challenge the very notion of milk. The product is a “high-protein nutrition product designed after … human mother’s milk” and it contains whey and milk proteins but no fluid milk produced by dairies.

In fact, the grocer’s cases are flowing with faux milk products, from cheese foods like Kraft Singles to yogurt drinks. They’re made with MPC’s, or Milk Protein Concentrates, an imported ingredient that’s cheap to ship but not approved by the FDA. Since 1998, imports have gone from $800 million to nearly $3 billion.

That’s bad news for consumers and worse for American dairy farmers. Between 1997 and 2007, according to the USDA, an estimated 52,000 dairies went out of business. Those businesses meant at least 200,000 independent jobs in rural areas.

So the story is pretty much like the rest of agriculture in America, hardly interesting enough to write about. Except that we’re talking about milk here, and that involves Moms, and Moms have gotten involved and that changes everything.

For more than a decade, since 1994 when rBGH, a biotech hormone that increases milk production, was first approved as an additive to bovine inputs, Moms have tried to get data about milk. Early questions involved the health of cows, which were more likely to have mastitis after rBGH was introduced. More mastitis meant more antibiotics needed to control it, and, without data proving whether or not that was bad for kids, Moms are still fighting for labels to show if dairy cows were treated with rBGH or not.

A panel of the FDA said there is no distinguishable difference between rBGH milk and old-fashioned milk and refused to allow labeling. The panel included an attorney and two animal researchers with close ties to Monsanto, manufacturer of rBGH. One of them, Michael Taylor, became vice president for public policy at Monsanto.

If Moms had been better connected to farmers, rBGH would have been a hard sell. After all, it is another cost and, moreover, one with side effects for the cows. For one thing, their udders swell almost to the ground, making it impossible for newborn calves to suck. If you miss a birth, expect a dead calf in the morning and if you catch the birth and move the calf to a crate, don’t be surprised if it dies.

As Moms learned what was going on, they sided with the calves and quit eating veal. So advertisers in agricultural media (Yeah, this means Monsanto) convinced farmers that consumers are the enemy. The proof that city people misunderstand farmers is easy to find—just check out any TV show that features someone who grew up in the country or, if you really want rural folks to sputter, invoke the Sierra Club or one of the other mostly urban groups that want to change rural life.

And to make it easier to sell rBGH to farmers, Monsanto invoked the “Get Big or Get Out” mantra devised by University Extension Services and other corporate flaks that enjoy humiliating the little guy. According to these suits, who don’t farm themselves, small farmers are failures and hobbyists that actually make their income off the farm.

The suits started pushing confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, as the picture of efficiency. While the majority of producers in 1997 were milking fewer than 200 cows, today’s bovines have been herded into industrial dairies with more than 2,000 cows each. Like the poultry and hog CAFOs before them, these behemoth facilities suck up water, produce tons of waste, and require animals to be treated with continual doses of medicines to stay healthy.

Don’t blame the farmers that fell into this snare. Since 1981, when the free-trade Congress tossed out parity dairy pricing, dairy earnings have declined. Parity, a regulatory safeguard in place since the Great Depression, meant that farm prices covered production plus a little profit.

Today’s milk check to farmers is half what it was last year at this time, and the 2008 paycheck just barely covered production costs — grain, hay, water, transportation and so forth. And while most businesses cut production or store their product when prices go down, dairy farmers must sell when milk is fresh, and they must keep milking, two times every day, for cows to stay healthy.

At the same time, Kraft Foods reported increased earnings in 2009 up 29% and Dean Foods reported at 39% rise in earnings. Kraft markets milk products under its own label and many others, of course and Dean Foods owns or sells at least 14 other brands, including Borden, Land O’Lakes, Horizon Organic and Silk Soymilk.

We don’t want to lose American dairies. So, next time you buy dairy, check the label carefully. Make sure you’re paying for milk, not mock.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2009

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