Fashionable Fear


The classic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft–think of him as a 1930s version of Stephen King–once wrote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

Milk cartons exploit this primal sentiment when they carry labels reading “rBST-free.”

Most people don’t even know what rBST is. When ordinary consumers encounter a sticker that mentions rBST, it can trigger their fear of the unknown. Perhaps they should be forgiven if they assume that rBST can turn them into zombies.

Unfortunately, much of the dairy industry is starting to behave like a herd of extras from “Night of the Living Dead.” America’s second-largest dairy cooperative is now telling its farmer-members to quit using rBST.

Somebody needs to tell their board of directors that zombies aren’t real–and that these worries about rBST are figments of their imaginations as well.

BST is a hormone that occurs naturally in cows. It helps them produce milk. Many years ago, scientists learned how to produce a synthetic version of it, called rBST. It’s essentially no different from regular BST. If dairy farmers add it to the BST already in cows, then their cows produce more milk.

Here’s the best part: There isn’t a drop of difference between milk that comes from cows that have received rBST and those that don’t. It looks the same, tastes the same, and is just as healthy. And, if you’re a milk drinker, it’s possible; even very likely, you have been drinking that milk safely for more than 13 years.

Yet some marketing genius decided to exploit limited public information and infer, through misleading labels, that “rBST-free” milk is better for you. A small number of consumers have bought in and responded by saying that they don’t want rBST in their milk–and now the whole dairy industry is reeling. A recent California poll (Massey) indicated consumers aren’t very concerned. But it doesn’t seem to matter; Safeway and Starbucks have announced plans to drop this milk from their shelves and menus.

As a farmer, I believe we have an obligation to meet consumer demands. We should produce the foods that people want. That’s how free markets work.

What makes the rBST controversy so infuriating is the fact that consumer demand is being manipulated–and my tolerance for this strategy is well past its expiration date.

I recently came across an interview with best-selling author Michael Crichton, posted on a website called The Daily Ablution. Unlike Lovecraft and King, Crichton doesn’t specialize in the horror genre, though his books are certainly full of frights. This is the guy, after all, who gave us “Jurassic Park” and “State of Fear.”

One of the questions focused on genetically-modified foods. What does Crichton think of them? I loved his answer so much that I’d like to reprint it here in full:

“Most of the people I know who are anxious about GM say that their concerns lie with the fact that the technology is of unproven safety. They share their worries with like-minded people by use of their cell phones. When I remind them that cell phones are a technology of unproven safety, and that the construction of all these wireless networks around the world and in our houses is a development of unproven safety, they just shrug. They don’t care. Even though most of them are old enough to remember the false fears about cancer and electromagnetic radiation. You’d think that fear could be easily reawakened in them, but no.

“From this I conclude fears are a matter of fashion. Worries are like clothing styles, they come and go, rise and fall, based on what the worry fashion leaders tell the herd of independent minds to fear this year. GM is fashionable to fear. But that will change.”

I hope the fear of rBST is just a passing fancy–a spilt-milk controversy that nobody will remember a few years from now. I’ve always maintained that in the long run, facts will prevail over emotion. In the short-term, however, emotion often carries the day. That’s what we’re seeing with rBST.

The good news may be that just as “Night of the Living Dead” spawned many sequels, the fuss over rBST will move into its second act. There’s still plenty of time to drive a stake through its heart.

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology. Mr. Kleckner is the former President of the American Farm Bureau.

Dean Kleckner

Dean Kleckner

Deceased (1932-2015)

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