Friday, January 12, 2007

More and more fitness enthusiasts like me — and lots of ordinary folks — have a growing interest in organics. Some of us want what’s best for our bodies, and others want what’s best for the environment.

While the data on whether organic foods are actually more nutritious than conventionally grown food is still sketchy, sales are clearly booming. And that hasn’t been lost on big business. Now, major food companies, and even retailing giant Wal-Mart, are aggressively peddling their own lines of organic foods. But consumers beware: Not everything marketed as “natural” or “organic” is what it appears to be.

Take the case of milk. Some big milk processors, companies like Booth Brothers and Land O’Lakes, now market a kind of phony-organic milk that they are labeling “rBST free,” “No added hormones,” or some similar sounding claim. And they’re charging up to a buck more a carton for it. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Who the heck wants something called rBST in their milk? And who wouldn’t pay more to avoid “synthetic hormones?”

But here’s the big catch: The milk they market as “hormone or rBST-free” is no different than conventional milk. The composition is the same. The nutrition is the same. They are equally safe. They are identical in every way.

In fact, every drop of dairy milk has natural hormones in it that comes naturally from the cow. Milk from cows given rBST, which is used to boost their milk production is unchanged. Sadly, these companies prey on consumer fears over the bogus belief someone is adding hormones to the milk. It’s a marketing tactic that one university dairy science critic has called “bottling fear for profit.”

Whatever your view is about the use of rBST, and I can understand why some people don’t like it, this so-called “rBST milk” sure as heck isn’t organic. Real organic milk must be guaranteed by a USDA-approved independent agency to meet a very strict list of guidelines. The Organic Consumers Association is so angry over this type of misrepresentation, they’ve called for a boycott of Horizon dairy and seven other dairies.

As someone who is very supportive of organic dairies and the organic movement in general, I am very concerned about this growing corporate takeover of a movement that is about far more than gouging consumers through tricky label language.

But I write this not just as a fitness advocate concerned about wholesome, nutritious foods and truth in labeling. I grew up on a farm in the Midwest and spent more hours than I care to think about milking cows and baling hay. As much as the public romanticizes farmers and farming, it is damn hard work. Farmers are like everyone else in one major respect: They need to make a living and provide for their families. And on a dairy farm, every dollar counts. At the end of the day, the practice of raising unwarranted concern about perfectly safe milk will end up hurting all dairy farmers and is not in the best interest of dairy producers, whether they use rBST or not.

It blows my mind that a few big companies want to make a fast buck off of consumer fear and ignorance, even if it means running down an entire agricultural category.

So, save yourself a lot of anxiety and a good deal of money by skipping the bogus “no rBST milk” and buying either real organic or conventional milk. After all, it is a new year and it’s never too late to make a resolution to improve your physical or financial health.

Joe Decker, recognized as “The World’s Fittest Man,” is an ultra-endurance power athlete, renowned fitness trainer.

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