FULTON, MD. -- Cow number three ambles into the milking parlor and slowly takes her place in the first stand by the door. While country music blares overhead, the Holstein nuzzles the metal pole next to her head and patiently waits to be milked.
It is a calm and peaceful scene -- perhaps one of the few that can be found in today's milk industry. Stung by studies that have raised concerns over milk's safety, hurt by nutritional concerns that have dampened consumption and bruised by competition from soft drinks and bottled water, milk has lost its innocence.
The simple and quiet times are long gone for what has often been called "nature's most perfect food." For one thing, dairy farmers and milk processors now are gearing up to launch aggressive and sophisticated marketing campaigns to get consumers to drink more milk.
"We can no longer assume every consumer wants to drink milk," says Cynthia Carson, chief executive officer of the National Dairy Board, a congressionally approved organization that uses dairy farmer money to promote the consumption of milk and other dairy products. "The industry needs to be more aggressive as marketers."
At the same time, industry officials as well as federal and state regulators are scrambling to revise the way they have monitored milk safety all these years.
On the one hand, state regulators are upgrading their inspections of dairy farms to ensure that farmers are not misusing drugs in treating their cows. Additionally, they are running considerably more laboratory tests to spot cases where drugs have been used improperly and perhaps illegally.
Meanwhile, the federal government is getting more involved too. Up to now, the Food and Drug Administration has monitored the state tests but conducted no routine laboratory exams of its own. But under pressure from consumer groups and Congress, the FDA next week will begin testing once a week for 11 different drug residues on five samples collected randomly from around the country. The FDA may be pressured to do even more as agency critics charge that five tests a week are far from adequate to guarantee the safety of the nation's milk supply.
Perhaps the only thing in the milk industry that hasn't changed significantly over the past few years is the cow. But that could happen too if the FDA approves the use of a genetically engineered growth hormone designed to increase a cow's milk production. The FDA had hoped to rule on the hormone -- called bovine somatotropin, or BST for short -- in early 1991, but now agency officials say a decision is about a year away. With each passing day, however, the controversy over BST seems to escalate as charges and countercharges swirl not only over the question of the drug's safety for both cows and their milk but also over its impact on dairy farming. Some opponents charge that BST would increase milk supplies, push down prices and, as a result, drive some of the small, less efficient family farms out of business.
But cow number three seems oblivious to all this turmoil. Along with 17 other members of her herd at Maple Lawn Farms Inc., she just stands quietly in the milking parlor waiting to be milked.
"For years, we've treated milk as a commodity; there was the feeling that there was a great big homogeneous society waiting for homogenized milk," says Carson of the National Dairy Board. "We felt there were plenty of consumers and if there were not enough consumers, then the government would purchase the milk" through its price support program.
But times have changed, and significantly at that, Carson notes. For one thing, thanks to the federal budget crunch, the government is shelling out far less for dairy price supports. In 1990, the last fiscal year, for instance, the government spent about $480 million; two years before that, however, the amount was almost three times as much -- $1.3 billion. But that was small compared to 1986 when the government spent $2.3 billion in dairy price supports.
Equally significant is the shift in what kind of milk consumers are drinking. For years, consumers only wanted whole milk, but in 1989, as concerns about fat mounted, consumers for the first time drank more low-fat than whole milk. On a per capita basis, consumers drank 92 pounds of whole milk and 95.5 pounds of low fat milk. (Although consumers tend to drink by the glass and buy by the gallon, the milk industry measures its product in pounds; for those who care, one gallon weighs about 8.6 pounds with the exact weight depending on fat content.)
Meanwhile, there was a steep increase in the consumption of skim milk, which consumers had long considered an inferior product. In 1989 (the latest figures available), consumers drank 20.1 pounds of skim milk per capita -- a 24 percent increase from 1988 and nearly double the 10.6 pounds per capita consumed in 1983.
What concerns the milk industry is that in the shift to low-fat or nonfat milk, many consumers have simply cut out milk entirely. "As people move down the fat ladder, we lose some at each step of the process," explains Bill Diggins, senior vice president for market and economic research at the National Dairy Board. "Some feel it's just not worth drinking skim milk -- it's just like colored water. They would rather stop drinking milk altogether."
Even more disturbing to milk industry officials are the sharp increases recorded in the consumption of soft drinks and bottled water. While total milk consumption has remained fairly stable this past decade, holding at a little more than 20 gallons per capita, soft drink consumption has increased from 33.3 gallons per capita in 1979 to 45.9 gallons in 1988. Bottled water, meanwhile has grown from 2.5 gallons per capita in 1979 to 6.4 gallons in 1988.
"The consumer's perception is that soft drinks are fun and bubbly, and it's an enthusiastic kind of product," says Marc Goldman, president of the Farmland Dairies, which sells milk in the New York metropolitan area. On the other hand, Goldman notes, "the image of milk is dull and dowdy and boring and good for you... . We need to have milk become the beverage of choice."
To do that, various associations of milk producers and processors are gearing up to launch major advertising campaigns. Unlike the past, however, these ads no longer will be general promotions, such as the National Dairy Board's slogan "Milk: It Does a Body Good." Instead, dairy board officials say the commercials will tell consumers "there are milks that are just right for you" -- a low-fat milk for older adults, a nonfat milk for young women, whole milk for teenage males.
"We have to stop looking at milk as one product," says Diggins. "It really is a range of products. You do not see Coca Cola marketing Coke the same way as Diet Coke. We have to start looking at milk the same way."
Also following Coke's lead, the milk industry is developing a host of new products to lure consumers, especially older ones, back to milk. Among the most successful to date is low-fat or skim milk that has been fortified with extra calcium, vitamins and minerals to simulate the creamier, richer taste of whole milk without the fat or the calories.
Meanwhile, Country Lake Foods, a division of Land O'Lakes Inc., has just introduced a low-fat, 2-percent milk with 60 percent less cholesterol. Other processors are working on similar low cholesterol milk drinks.
On the other end of the spectrum, processors are making some very rich flavored milks, such as Country Lake's chocolate Irish cream or Swiss chocolate mint drinks. "Just because consumers don't want fat doesn't mean they don't want treats," says David Schwain, Country Lake's vice president of marketing.
No matter what new products are created, no matter how aggressively the farmers and processors advertise, industry officials agree there will be little they can to do hold onto consumption, let alone increase it, if the safety of milk becomes an issue. "Because the perception of milk is that it is wholesome, natural and pure," the issue of safety is particularly critical for milk, says Carson of the National Dairy Board.
One after another, industry officials like to stress that no other food product is tested as often or as thoroughly as milk. From the cow to the consumer, milk is continually checked for temperature, bacteria, color, odor, added water, antibiotic residues and a host of other factors. "The industry takes over 5 million samples a year," says Jerry Kozak, vice president of the International Dairy Food Association. State regulators take thousands of samples as well, and their findings are monitored by the FDA.
So recent reports of drug residues in milk purchased off the supermarket shelf have set off alarms, even though industry officials contend that the residue levels found were not high enough to be considered a health hazard.
Drug residues occur when a farmer treats a sick cow with medicines such as penicillin. Under law, milk from a treated cow must be kept off the market until the medication has cleared that cow's system. In many cases, farmers don't wait as long as they should -- and milk from just one such cow can contaminate an entire tanker of milk. In other cases, drugs not approved for dairy cows -- including many sulfa drugs -- are used. Many of these unapproved drugs have gone undetected because state regulators have not routinely tested for them.
But increasingly, industry and state regulators are running more tests for some of the unapproved drugs they suspect are being used. Part of this stems from two studies conducted in late 1989. The first, by the Wall Street Journal, found that 38 percent of 50 milk samples collected in 10 cities around the country were tainted with antibiotics and sulfa drugs. Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that four of 20 milk samples collected in the Washington metropolitan area contained residues.
While health officials are concerned that these residues could cause allergic reactions in some milk drinkers, they were particularly disturbed by the dual findings that some of the milk contained low residues of sulfamethazine, which not only has not been approved for dairy-cow use but even more significantly has also been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals.
As a result, FDA conducted its own milk sampling survey in early 1990. Initially, the agency said it could find no residues in the 70 samples it collected. But two months later after further testing, FDA reversed itself and said 58 samples contained "some traces of unconfirmed sulfa drugs." However, the FDA said the amounts were so small that they were not a health risk.
The reversal prompted Congress' watchdog, the General Accounting Office, to study the FDA's survey. Its conclusion: The FDA tests were so limited in scope that the FDA could not support its conclusion that the nation's milk supply was safe.
In response, the FDA has announced that beginning Monday it will routinely test for eight sulfa drugs and three tetracyline drugs in five milk samples randomly collected nationwide each week.
Although this will be the first time FDA has ever tested milk routinely, consumer activists question whether the agency's efforts will be enough to assure milk safety. "One sample from five locations a week -- that's not going to solve the problem," says Lisa Lefferts, staff scientist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
FDA officials do not necessarily disagree. "It's a very modest kind of endeavor," acknowledges Gerald Guest, director of FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, which will conduct the tests. "We would like to do more and will increase over time, but at this point it is what we can do with our current resources."
In some respects, the future of the milk industry lies right in Guest's hands because the Center for Veterinary Medicine also is responsible for making a decision on whether the genetically engineered hormone BST should be approved to increase milk production.
Although BST occurs naturally in cows, four drug companies have developed a laboratory version that, when injected into cows, increases milk production between 10 percent and 30 percent.
In 1985, the FDA took the first step toward approving the drug when the Center for Veterinary Medicine concluded that scientific data showed that milk from BST-treated cows was safe to drink. However, the FDA has yet to conclude that the drug is both safe for cows themselves and for the environment -- and therefore could be sold commercially.
"At one time, we thought we'd perhaps have some sort of decision up or down in 1991," says Guest. "I'm not sure of that anymore."
One reason is the large amount of controversy that the 1985 decision has stirred up. Consumer groups continue to denounce the safety finding, with the latest salvo having occurred only two months ago when Consumers Union issued a report that raised new health concerns, including the fact that BST-treated cows may have more health problems, which in turn would lead to increased use of antibiotics. The upshot: more drug residues in milk.
Meanwhile, two government agencies -- the GAO and the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services -- are both investigating the 1985 ruling. The results of both investigations -- which are looking into whether the FDA followed proper scientific procedures in reaching its conclusion -- are expected this spring.
Guest and other FDA officials, however, remain convinced that milk from BST-supplemented cows is safe -- pointing to another report also issued in December. That report, by a panel of medical and veterinary experts convened by the National Institutes of Health, concluded that milk from BST-treated cows was equal to that from untreated cows.
The charges and countercharges are certain to continue as FDA reviews the remaining BST safety issues.
"I never dreamed people would be this concerned," says Guest. But on reflection he adds that he is not surprised. "I think milk has always been a rather sacred kind of product."