Bayer, the owner of Monsanto, announced on July 29 that it was voluntarily withdrawing glyphosate (sold under the brand name RoundUp) from the consumer market by January, 2023. Once existing stocks are cleared out of the supply chain the company will no longer sell glyphosate in the lawn/garden market. A herbicide labeled “Roundup” will remain on the market but it will no longer contain the glyphosate herbicide. It will contain a blend of other herbicides, older ones, which presumably will be less lawsuit prone.
Bayer has been facing widespread lawsuits (the last I heard Bayer was facing 30,000 claims) in the US over claims that glyphosate causes some types of cancer. And it has been losing, not just in local courts but also in appeals court. The company is apparently appealing to the US Supreme Court but it isn’t known if SCOTUS will even take the case up, and if they do no one knows how they will rule.
Since 90% of the lawsuits are coming from the home consumer market, Bayer’s decided to cut its losses and stop sales, but only in that market. Glyphosate will continue to be sold to the agricultural market so the product will still be in widespread use.
The whole situation is — is complicated, to put it mildly. There is even considerable debate over whether or not glyphosate is actually a carcinogen. So I’m not going to get into that whole argument.
I know some environmentalists who are celebrating, claiming this is some kind of victory. It isn’t. Let me point out some things.
Bayer, and only Bayer, is withdrawing glyphosate from only the consumer market. This means two things.
One: the most widespread usage of glyphosate is in the agricultural market in the first place. That usage will continue unabated. Also glyphosate has been off patent since 2000 so it can be made and sold by any licensed herbicide manufacturer for any legal market. Under US regulations glyphosate is still legal to make and use. Bayer stopping sales to the lawn/garden market isn’t going to do anything to reduce the usage of the product.
Two: glyphosate was widely adopted because it was actually safer than a lot of the herbicides in widespread use at the time. There were far less health risks involved in using it, it was less persistent in the environment, and it was less toxic to wildlife. Many of the herbicides in widespread use at the time glyphosate was first introduced were seriously nasty. Bayer has already announced that the new “Roundup” is going to include a blend of various herbicides, some of which probably predate glyphosate, and which could very possibly be much, much worse for the environment, far more persistent in the soil, and worse for the health of human beings, animals and insects.
Sidenote: One wonders what the hell Bayer thought it was doing when it bought Monsanto. Just about everyone, including a lot of Bayer shareholders, saw the disaster in waiting that Monsanto was when the purchase was made. The first glyphosate cases were already in the courts, and the whole dicamba fiasco was already on the horizon. Bayer’s attempts at defending itself have probably cost the company tens of millions of dollars in legal fees, court costs, PR damage and regulatory problems, not to mention bribes lobbying efforts to various politicians.
Milk, Milk Everywhere. Here We Go Again
Well, here we go again… Sigh… Dairy farmers have been getting fairly decent prices for their milk for the last few months, but it is highly unlikely that situation will continue for much longer because milk production has been skyrocketing. If USDA’s estimates are accurate, the dairy industry is on track to produce in 2022 at least 8.4 billion pounds more milk than in 2020, 13 billion pounds more than in 2019.
The climate situation has caused some cutbacks, but not much. Dairy farms added 153,000 more milking cows to their herds since last year. This is the largest number of dairy cows on record since 1993. And you have to remember that modern dairy cows are much more productive than they were back then.
What it all means is a massive increase in a production while there is no corresponding increase in demand and even a slight decrease in demand. The result is that wholesale prices for cheese and butter have been falling, and stockpiles of unsold cheese and butter have been skyrocketing. USDA says that the stockpile of unsold cheese as of mid year is the highest on record, and the butter surplus isn’t far behind, with wholesale prices dropping there as well.
At the consumer end of things generic butter and cheese have been dropping in price. I’ve seen a lot of generic and house brands of butter going for $1.99/lb or even less. Interestingly, brand name and “artisanal” butter is still going for absolutely insane amounts of money, ranging from $5/lb to as high as $11/lb for some brands of “organic” butter.
Well it was a wild ride on the commodities market this past week as corn hit $7.40 and soybeans hit $15.71. We haven’t seen prices like this in something like ten years or more, and a lot of people are puzzled by why the commodities prices have spiked up this high, this fast. There are no natural disasters or reports of extreme shortages that would cause this, so what’s going on?
It’s a combination of things that have made the markets a wee bit nervous. China is trying to rebuild its pig herds after they were decimated because of culling from African Swine Fever, so there is increased demand there. There are weather problems in parts of South America that are interfering with some corn production down there. USDA announced that US farmers are going to plant less corn this growing season. The reduction isn’t much, but enough to make people think it might make supplies tight. They think people are going to be driving a lot more this summer which is going to mean increased demand for gasoline which, in turn, means more demand for ethanol to meet the blending requirements.
So here we are with corn at 7.49 at the moment. Extended out into the future commodities prices get more reasonable, but not by much. July corn is sitting at 6.73 which is still high but not utterly horrible, and September corn is at 5.92
So, why should you be interested in corn prices? Because volatility in corn prices ripples through the whole economy. High corn prices mean it costs a lot more for the dairy, beef, chicken and pork producers to feed their cattle. That’s going to put pressure on consumer food prices across the board, not just dairy products and meat. High corn prices can force producers to look at other grains like wheat to substitute. That can push wheat prices up, increasing costs for flour, which increases the cost of baked goods. Well, you get the idea.
It also puts pressure on fuel prices. The government mandates that refiners blend a certain amount of ethanol into their fuels, and in the US the majority of that ethanol is made from corn.
Now the markets can absorb some of these increased costs, but not a lot and not for long, and sooner rather than later it’s going to result in increased prices on consumer products. So if corn prices stay this high for much longer, you’re going to see that rippling out into increased prices on food, fuel and other products that you buy yourself. Some companies like General Mills and a few others have already already announced that they’re going to have no choice but to start raising consumer prices. Wholesale beef prices have gone up about 33% already this past month.
And it isn’t just food. Just look at the craziness going on with lumber. And speaking of lumber…
What The Hell Is Going On With Lumber?
That’s a question a lot of people are asking because lumber prices have gone nuts. Prices on lumber have spiked up around 360% in just the past year. That is not a typo. 360% in one year. I was paying under $2 for 2×4 studs last year, now that’s up to around $7 each. MrsGF and I have pushed back plans to do a few remodeling projects here at the house because not only have prices skyrocketed, it’s hard to get materials even at those prices. I talked to one contractor who builds houses. he bid on building one house late last year at $350K and now the same house would be closer to $450K.
Why this abrupt spike in prices? It isn’t because there’s a shortage of trees or something like that. Nor are the people growing trees getting the money. They’ve seen only a 2% increase in the price they’re getting for the logs. It’s all the haulers, sawmills and processors in between that are the cause.
The claim is that it’s being caused by a labor shortage. They can’t find truck drivers, workers at sawmills, tree cutters, etc.
Herbicide and Plastic Shortages
As if corn and lumber prices weren’t enough to worry about, we’re also seeing shortages of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and, believe it or not, plastics. Farmers are having trouble finding things like field drainage tile and the plastic wrap used to protect bales. There are reported shortages of glyphosate and some other herbicides, some fungicides and insecticides that are used to prevent weeds and protect crops.
What this all adds up to is considerable pressure to increase prices. Someone has to pay for all of these increased costs and in the long run that’s going to be us, the consumers. How bad those increases will be, well, I have no idea. It is going to depend on how long commodities prices remain high and how much of the cost increases the industry is willing to absorb before they have to raise prices. As I said earlier in this, a lot of companies have already announced price increases.
Dairy Pride Act
So, let’s talk about plant based “milk”. I didn’t really want to talk about things like almond milk and all that, but it’s in the news again thanks to the Dairy Pride Act being pushed by Sen. Baldwin from Wisconsin and a few other politicians.
The whole problem revolves around that one word, milk, and how it is defined. There are two real definitions of the word, one biological, and one legal. Biologically speaking milk is the scrections of the mammary glands from mammalian animals and which are used to feed their young. The legal definition is, well, here’s a direct quote from federal government regulations:
“Milk means the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows, which may be clarified and may be adjusted by separating part of the fat therefrom; concentrated milk, reconstituted milk, and dry whole milk. Water, in a sufficient quantity to reconstitute concentrated and dry forms, may be added.”
You will undoubtedly note a lot of problems with the above. The most glaring problem is that it claims milk only comes from cows, ignoring the fact that goats, sheep, horses, oxen, even beavers, give milk. (Mmmm, beaver milk. Yum. Wasn’t there an old Monty Python joke about Peruvian beaver cheese?) (Sorry, my mind just flashed up an image of a farmer trying to milk a beaver. That’s just the way my brain works. It scares me sometimes. My brain, not beavers.)
So, here’s the problem. For years now certain companies have been selling nut, grain or bean based liquids as substitutes for dairy milk and calling the stuff milk. This is, technically, illegal. The US has very strict labeling requirements when it comes to food, and the government has gleefully gone after a host of companies and individuals who mislabel their products. But not when it comes to this stuff. For whatever reason the agencies responsible for food labeling accuracy have blithely ignored the mislabeling of these products, despite a considerable amount of pressure from the dairy industry to do something about it.
Now you might think this whole thing is silly, and you do have a point. But on the other hand the anger of the dairy industry is understandable as well. The dairy industry has spent many, many decades and hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, propaganda, health claims, puffed up PR campaigns and other efforts to try to make its products appear to be healthy, good for you, pure and wholesome, and even essential. And then along come these upstarts trying to cash in on all of the work the dairy industry put into making milk look good, and claiming that their products are “milk” as well, and, well, they’re pissed.
Legally speaking, the dairy industry has a valid point. This stuff does not meet the legal definition of “milk”. US food labeling laws, if strictly interpreted, should make the labeling of this stuff as “milk” to be illegal. But the court system doesn’t seem to see it that way and has let this continue, so, well, here we are then.
Politicians from large dairy states like Wisconsin are upset about this as well because, well, let’s be blunt here. The only reason they’re upset is because the dairy industry is paying them to be upset. The dairy industry pumps huge amounts of money into the coffers of these politicians and their PACs. The result is this Dairy Pride thingie which basically says that you can only label actual milk as milk.
Will this actually go anywhere? I have no idea. If it passes, will it help the dairy industry? No. Won’t do a thing to help the dairy industry. Will it hurt the fake milk industry? Probably not. They’ll just come up with something else to call their stuff, pump a few more bucks into their advertising budgets, and that will be it.
Now, let’s see, what else did I want to babble about? There was some more stuff… Oh, amateur radio! Gads, almost forgot about that.
My OCFD (that’s an “off center fed dipole” for you non-radio people out there, a kind of antenna) came down again. That is a long wire antenna, about 130 feet long in total. It had snapped before and I’d repaired it and put it back up, but it snapped again now, so I figure that years of hanging in the air and flapping about in the wind has caused metal fatigue or something in the wires, so I didn’t bother fixing it again. It’s going to come down and I already have another one on order. Why not build my own? I could, but I did mention about the lazy thing, right? Why build one when I can buy one that’s probably going to be better than I could make myself.
Meanwhile I’m using a GAP Titan DX vertical antenna which has turned out to be way, way better than I’d hoped. I’ve had that one up for some time now and it works amazingly well. I had contacts with 3 Japanese stations in the space of about 10 minutes yesterday afternoon using less than 100 watts output, plus one or two in Europe and in other exotic places like Texas, New York, etc.
My woodworking and wood turning has come to a screeching halt recently because I’ve been spending a lot of time out in the gardens hauling compost, tilling up stuff, etc. We got the onions and garlic in but it’s still too early to put anything else out. The weather hasn’t exactly been warm here except for two days when it was in the mid 80s. Generally it hasn’t gotten much above 50 here, with night time temps pushing down into the mid 30s or even a bit lower. That hasn’t kept the tulips from blooming though as you can see from that photo up there.
But back to wood working to wrap this up. I really enjoyed making decorative lamps with resin and wood and want to do some more of those, so I’ve got more resin on order and that should be coming this week yet. The few “jumble” pieces I did as experiments with odd bits of wood cast into resin, well much to my surprise people really seem to like those for some reason so I’ll probably do a few more of those. But what I really want to make are more decorative lamps. Anyway, more about that when I get into that.
Borden Dairy Company filed for bankruptcy. Borden said it had debts of $500 million and assets of only $100 million. It employs over 3,000 people. This doesn’t mean the company will completely go out of business, and the statement said the company will continue operations as it works out a way to get its finances straightened out.
Interestingly, Borden was listed as one of Forbes 2019 “Most Reputable Companies” back in May, where it was listed as number 16. Obviously Forbes didn’t look at the company’s actual finances when making up that list.
When companies like Borden and Dean Foods goes under, the pundits and the companies themselves are quick to point the finger of blame at anything and everything. The articles I’ve read about the Borden’s bankruptcy and the earlier Dean Food bankruptcy blame the decline in the consumption of milk, the increasing popularity of plant based “milk”, changes in diet, dietary fads, major retailers like Walmart building their own milk processing facilities, etc. They blame it on everything except the real reason, the company itself. Or, rather the management of the company. The company itself was unable to adapt to changing market conditions, and that is what drove them into financial failure.
Yes, consumption of liquid (drinking) milk has been declining. But this is a trend that has been going on for decades. They can’t claim that they were blindsided by this. Walmart made no secret of the fact that it wanted to build its own milk processing facilities. That was known for years before they actually did it. The growing interest in vegetarian and vegan diets that reduce or even eliminate the consumption of dairy products isn’t new either. This is a trend that has also been going on for years now. The same is true for the increased interest in grain and nut based “milk” products.
That Bordens and Dean couldn’t make it is due entirely to the failure of their own management teams being unable to adapt to changing markets.
I’m sitting here in eastern Wisconsin, just 20 miles or so south of Green Bay, and I’m surrounded by dairy companies that are doing pretty darn good. Over the last few years I’ve seen at least a half dozen major expansions by large processing companies, mostly cheese makers, including some multinational corporations. And they’re all doing pretty well. Why? Because they’ve been able to adapt to a changing market.
Dean and Borden failed because they didn’t adapt to an ever changing marketplace.
Dean Foods, one of the largest milk processors in the country, filed for bankruptcy on Tuesday and is in purchasing talks with Dairy Farmers of America, a huge co-op.
This is one of those situations that surprised me but didn’t surprise me, if that makes any sense. I knew Dean has been in financial trouble for some time, and there were rumors going back months already that it was looking around to try to sell itself. But I didn’t think the company’s financial situation was quite this bad.
Dean has been struggling for a long time. It lost a major contract with Walmart not too long ago. Dean had been supplying the retailer with milk under the Walmart house brand, and lost a major part of that market when Walmart opened its own milk processing facility. Dean’s major problem is that it has always been a supplier of liquid (drinking) milk and that market has been shrinking for decades. Dean has never been able to adapt to that. It’s tried various things, tried rebranding, different products, even tried investing in plant based alternatives to milk, but nothing ever really worked very well for the company. It hasn’t made a profit in over two years, and that just couldn’t go on any longer.
I find myself wondering how much longer milk as a beverage is going to hang around as a major factor in our diet. For at least twenty or thirty years now the consumption of beverage milk has been declining, and all the hype and propaganda being pumped out by the various milk marketing boards and the dairy industry hasn’t managed to reverse that trend.
I scoffed at reports some months back that claimed milk prices would climb to levels that are almost comfortable for dairy farmers. I shouldn’t have. Milk prices on the commodities markets have hit 20.18 for November and 19.73 for December. Of course that’s the price on the commodities market, not the price farmers are actually getting for their milk. That varies widely for a variety of factors. But for the first time in a long time dairy farmers are finally starting to get a price that might let them make a bit of profit and get some of their debt paid down.
I had to read this article twice before I realized that it wasn’t a belated April Fool joke and that they were serious about this. Yes, they’ve really built a kind of dairy farm on a barge floating in a harbor. Now I’ve tried to find out more information about this but all I’ve been able to find have been more PR fluff pieces, with little or no actual facts. The Beladon website link in the original story has been “in maintenance mode” for several days now (just what are they maintaining?) but there is a link to a site https://floatingfarm.nl/ about the farm itself. Sort of. If you like more PR speak, that is. (You’ll have to use Google Translate) And again, there are no actual facts, just lots and lots of enviro-babble and grand statements and “oh my, aren’t we wonderful!” silliness, and things like that tend to make me a bit skeptical.
I also noted that there is no mention of exactly what this white elephant cost them to build in any of the stories I found. It took a bit of digging to find that out and again, as with everything else about this, everything was more than a little vague. The only numbers I found were from about three years ago when they first proposed this project. They claimed at that time it would cost about $3 million to build this thing. $3 million… To house just 32 cows. (And they claim that traditional farming is wasteful???) And I’d be willing to bet that when all of the bills are added up, this was considerably more than that.
But then nothing about this project makes sense if you look at it closely. They claim that we need different methods of farming going into the future, that raising cattle is extremely wasteful in terms of land use, has pollution problems, etc. And they certainly are right about all of that. But this project doesn’t solve any of those problems.
They claim that moving the cows offshore onto a barge eliminates the need for large spaces for cattle to be raised. But the biggest use of land when it comes to cattle isn’t housing the cattle, it’s growing food for them. Millions of acres of cropland is used just to raise grain, soybeans and hay to feed cattle. The cows themselves are generally housed in feedlots or housing units that actually take up very little acerage. Simply moving the cows off the ground onto a barge doesn’t do anything to eliminate the need to grow food for them.
Now they claim that they’re going to grow 20% of the cattle feed right there in a sort of greenhouse on the top level using LED grow lights, and, well, good for them, but it ain’t going to happen. Do they even know how much cows eat? The average milking dairy cow eats about 100 pounds of feed per day. That means they need about 3,200 pounds of feed a day for their small herd. So their little green house will have to produce 640 pounds of high quality cattle feed per day. Ain’t gonna happen, as I said. But even if they did, that means they still need to come up with 80% of the cows’ diet from other sources, and they claim that’s going to come from human food waste. And there is a huge problem with that. Human food waste doesn’t make very good cattle feed.
Cows evolved to eat mostly grass with a bit of grass seed (i.e. grain) mixed in. And not much else. Modern cattle rations include soybeans and corn and other grains for added protein, mineral supplements and a lot of other stuff that isn’t part of a cow’s normal diet, but is added to improve milk production.
Now I don’t know about you, but here at the house we don’t eat a hell of a lot of grass, and what grain we do eat is almost all in the form of various baked goods like bread. Human food waste is made up mostly of things like spoiled fruit and vegetables, spoiled or outdated, highly processed baked goods, bits of fat, gristle and meat, and all of it thoroughly laced with salt, fats from a variety of sources, and lots and lots of preservatives, “flavor enhancers”, texture modifiers and other things that, while edible, aren’t really, well, food. Not for people and certainly not for cows.
Granted, there are some human foods cattle can eat, but that material is going to have to be carefully selected (requiring labor and energy), is going to have to be processed (more energy and labor), is going to have to be tested (more energy and labor), other feed products are going to have to be added to make sure the cattle are getting a diet that meets their nutritional needs (still more energy, labor and added feed costs), and… Well, when you add in the labor, the energy, the supplements, etc., then add in the cost of running that LED lighted green house that’s supposed to produce 20% of the cows’ diet, this is going to be the most expensive cow diet of all time.
Then there are other questions I’d like answered, like where is the energy going to come from to operate this thing and what is that going to cost? This is going to be veryenergy intensive, far more so than a normal cattle housing operation. Robotic milkers, the LED lighted greenhouse, the sophisticated sewage treatment system on the lower level, heating, cooling, ventilation… This operation is going to suck up a lot of energy.
So, how much milk are they going to get out of this system so they can pay their bills? They claim they’ll get about 200 gallons a day out of those 32 cows, and while that sounds like a lot, it really isn’t. Running calculations are a bit tedious because the dairy industry doesn’t generally deal with gallons of milk, at least at the farm level. Farmers are paid by the pound, not the gallon. Milk weighs about 8.6 pounds per gallon, so 200 gallons would be about 1,700 pounds, and they have 32 cows so that would mean production of about 53 pounds of milk per cow per day, while the average dairy cow in Wisconsin produces about 64+ pounds per day on average and our best producing cows put out considerably more than that. So when you look at the cost per pound of milk, this operation is going to be ridiculously expensive to operate and extremely inefficient in terms of milk production.
And then why in the world float the whole thing on a barge in a harbor? How are they going to deal with storms, waves, flooding, connecting pipelines, electric cables, communications cables, etc. back to the mainland? All that is going to require special infrastructure that is going to have to be built from scratch and will be very expensive.
Now I’m all for experimentation and innovation. But there is nothing innovative going on here. Every single technology and technique that they’re touting here has already been tried and is already, if it’s useful, being used. Robotic milking? Already being done and spreading rapidly. Using human food waste? Already being done where financially feasible. Treating cattle waste? Already being done. LED growing lights? Been around for ages. There is literally nothing new here. All of the technologies and techniques being used here are already being used, or have been tried and discarded because they weren’t practical or economical, or, like putting cattle on a barge, are so fraught with problems and impractical on the face of it that no one would bother even trying.
Back in the Victorian era there was a fad where wealthy people would build ornate, ridiculous and rather silly structures on their estates for no other reason than they could. These structures were often technically advanced, attractive, even artistic. But ultimately they were useless for any practical purpose. These structures started to be called a “folly”. That’s what this is. A modern version of the folly. Interesting but ultimately useless and utterly impractical.
If you click the link above it will take you to a fascinating article at the Farm Journal (re-printed from Bloomberg News) about what’s going on in school food service with the focus on milk. Unlike the usual two or three paragraph news blurb that tells you pretty much nothing, this article goes into the situation in some depth and is pretty well written, and debunks a lot of the hype being pushed by various marketing boards.
It still puzzles some of my readers here that someone with his roots in dairy farming like me can be so critical of the dairy industry, but that same dairy industry stopped giving a damn about the health and well being of you and your family a long, long time ago. What it has focused on exclusively for decades now is trying to sell you milk and milk products any way it can. It has manipulated data, used misleading statistics, cherry picked information, ignored significant health issues, pressured retailers and school systems, and generally used every marketing trick imaginable to try to convince you that milk is good for you when there is significant evidence that indicates it isn’t.
The article isn’t just about milk, of course. It goes into details about the Obama era school lunch rules, the attempts to undermine them, shows how the big processed food manufacturers try to influence school lunch programs, and how so-called “experts” are used to try to influence things. One “volunteer adjunct professor”, whatever the hell that is, claimed that if a 16 year old girl didn’t drink milk and “doesn’t get enough [calcium] by the time she’s 30 her bones start to turn to dust”.
If it sounds like the dairy industry is growing increasingly desperate to sell you milk, that’s because it is. Right now the US alone has about 1.4 billion pounds of excess cheese in storage. That is not a typo. 1.4 billion pounds. Every year milk production goes up while at the same time demand is trending down. The demand for liquid drinking milk has been declining for decades now, and even cheese consumption has been flat or even declining a bit. In a rational world what happens when you have too much of a product is that you stop making so much of it. But one thing I learned long ago is that rationality seems to be in short supply.
Go take a look at the article if you have some time. It makes for fascinating reading and will give you an idea of how the food industry in this country is being manipulated.
I hadn’t really planned on talking about a2 milk but it’s started to show up at a few stores locally and some people were asking me about it. I thought I’d covered so-called “a2” milk here before in depth but a quick search through the archives only turned up a couple of brief comments about it. I know I wrote about it before so either the search failed to turn it up in the archives or I published that piece somewhere else. I suppose it could have been on my defunct Tumblr blog. So I’m going to take a look at it again and if I did publish this before, well, it won’t be the first time I’ve repeated myself. Hey, I’m old. I’m lucky if I can remember my phone number some days.
Now, the news…
Back in mid summer a2 Milk (the company) got itself a new CEO, Jayne Hrdlicka, brought over from Qantas Airways because apparently selling airplane tickets is just like selling milk.
Just two months later, in September, Hrdlicka abruptly sold all of the stock in the company that she owned, some 357,000 shares.
Now when the brand new CEO of a company abruptly sells every single share of the company she heads up, a lot of people sort of stare and go WTF??? The company issued a statement saying that she did so to meet “tax obligations”. And, of course, everyone sort of chuckled and said “yeah, sure she did”. Especially after those people found out that the company’s CFO, Craig Loutit, sold off 150,000 shares in the company a couple of weeks before the CEO did, and, well… Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, when the CFO sells off a large percentage of his shares in the company and the new CEO who has been on the job for only two months sells off all of her shares in the company?
And then came the announcement that Nestle is jumping into the “a2” milk market by selling infant formula based on “a2” milk in China, a major market for the A2 Milk company and…
Well, let’s sum things up here: The CFO of the company sells off a large chunk of stock in the company. Shortly thereafter the new CEO sells all of her stock in the company for “tax obligations”, and a few weeks later Nestle announces it is moving into what had been A2M’s exclusive territory with a virtually identical product… Nope, nothing to see here. Let’s move on, shall we?
What the heck is a2 milk anyway?
There is a lot of different stuff in milk, and some people are sensitive to some of the things in milk or are even outright allergic to some of the components. My oldest son, for example, is mildly lactose intolerant.
So prepare for your eyes to glaze over because I’m about to get all sciencey here for a few minutes. Or you can take a nap until I’m done with this and pick it up when I’m finished with this part.
The biggest problem people have with milk is lactose intolerance. Lactose is a type of sugar found in milk. People who are lactose intolerant are unable to fully digest the lactose in milk, resulting in gas, bloating and even diarrhea after eating dairy products. They don’t make enough of an enzyme called lactase which is needed to digest lactose.
Or is it? Here’s where it starts to get complicated and more than a little controversial.
One of the components of milk is a protein called beta-casein. It is present in significant quantities, making up about 30% of the total proteins in milk. There are two different types of beta-casein, a1 and a2. The only difference between the two is a single amino acid. Beta-casein contains a total of 209 amino acids whether it is a1 or a2 type. The difference is that at position 67, a1 milk has a histidine and a2 has a proline. Now when digested in the small intestine, this histidine may cause the release of a peptide called beta-casomorphine-7 or BCM-7 because that’s a hell of a lot easier to spell. And BCM-7 is what causes the controversy. (I say may produce BCM-7 because there doesn’t seem to be any consistent proof that BCM-7 is even produced in the human digestive system in the first place. But let’s ignore that for the moment.)
Back in the 90s there was a study that indicated that BCM-7 was not a good thing, well, in rats, anyway. There was a claim that it caused diabetes because apparently some rats in the test that were fed a1 milk produced BCM-7 and got diabetes, while rats that weren’t fed the stuff didn’t.
Only that was mostly bunk, as it turned out. The study was seriously flawed. As were others that claimed a1 milk caused not just diabetes but heart disease as well. A paper published in Nature (you can read it yourself here) debunks the whole theory that a1 type milk caused any such problems in human beings. The conclusion of the paper was that:
“there is no convincing or probable evidence that A1 beta-casein in cows milk is a factor causing DM-I diabetes.“
It was also concluded that the same was true when it came to chronic heart disease. There was no evidence that a1 type milk was a factor in causing CHD. Another study supported the study published in Nature (abstract here) and says that
“Evidence from several epidemiological studies and animal models does not support the association of milk proteins, even proteins in breast milk, and the development of T1D [type 1 diabetes]. Ecological data, primarily based on A1/ A2 variations among livestock breeds, do not demonstrate causation, even among countries where there is considerable dairy consumption.”
So how did these health claims for a2 milk get to be ‘a thing’ as they say? Why does so-called “a2” milk even exist as a product?
In the 1990s someone came up with a genetic test to determine if a cow would produce the a1 or the a2 type of protein, and a company called A2 Corporation was started in New Zealand in 2000 to try to make money off it. They started a campaign to try to make people terrified of a1 milk by claiming that a1 type milk was responsible for heart disease and diabetes, and even tried to link it to schizophrenia and autism. It even launched a campaign to try to force the New Zealand government to declare a1 type milk a health hazard and require warnings on packaging.
Then the push back began.
First the New Zealand Commerce Commission turned up and pointed out some labeling issues. The company was claiming there was no a1 protein in its milk. But there was. Testing indicated there was indeed a1 type proteins in the a2 labeled milk and finally the company had to admit that they “could not be certain that there was no A1 in A2 milk.”
Then the NZ Food Safety Authority and Australia’s Ministry of Health and Food Standards got involved. Warnings were issued, threats were uttered, and finally the company had to withdraw its claims about the health effects of a1 and a2 milk, fines were issued, companies linked to the product went under, and, well, the whole thing was a mess.
The company itself, now called “The a2 Milk Company Limited” withdrew health claims for its product except the claim that it may cause less gastric distress for those who have problems consuming other types of milk.
That is the only alleged health effect that has any kind of actual scientific backing, but even that claim is dubious. There were a couple of apparently independent studies, very small ones, that gave some indication that for people who experience gastric distress from consuming milk, consuming “a2” milk might cause fewer symptoms in a few cases. But those studies each looked at only about 40 – 50 people, and the results were self-reported in at least one of those studies, so it isn’t really known if what they were experiencing was accurate or not.
But that hasn’t prevented a lot of other people from making the same unsubstantiated and outright false claims that the original company and its founders tried to push. While scrounging around doing research for this piece I found dozens of websites making the same health claims that got the company in trouble back in the early 2000s.
Let’s wrap this up because this is getting longer than I really wanted.
Despite what some of the promoters of this stuff claim, “a1” milk does not cause disease in human beings.
Despite what some of the promoters claim, “a2” milk does not cure anything.
The only difference between “a1” and “a2” milk is a single amino acid in a single component of a milk protein.
All dairy cows produce both the “a1” and “a2” type proteins, whether they have the so-called “a2” gene or not. The only difference is that cows with the genetic marker produce a larger percentage of the “a2” type. So-called “a2” milk still contains some “a1” type proteins.
If you are truly lactose intolerant, you still should not drink “a2” milk because it contains normal lactose. You will still experience the same discomfort, bloating and other symptoms.
If you are allergic to any of the components of milk you should not drink “a2” milk because it still has all of those components.
The only alleged health benefit with any kind of actual proof is an indication that a small percentage of people who experience gastric distress from consuming milk experience somewhat less gastric distress when consuming “a2” milk, but even those few studies are questionable.
So why do people pay extraordinary prices for the stuff? As H.L. Mencken allegedly said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the [American] public.”
South Mountain Creamery in Maryland is in something of a bizarre situation. The farm has it’s own bottling plant and sells milk directly to consumers, and it has the FDA going after it because it’s 100% real pasteurized skim milk is, well, 100% real skim milk and nothing else.
That’s right, the FDA claims the creamery cannot label it’s skim milk as “skim milk”. It is trying to order the creamery to label it “imitation milk product” or “imitation milk” when, well, when it absolutely is not imitation anything. The FDA claims it has to be labeled “imitation” because the product does not contain artificially added vitamins.
Now, a bit of background here. The milk you buy in the grocery store is not actually pure milk. Pretty much none of it is. It has vitamins A and D added to it. Basically the bottling plant throws a ground up vitamin pill in it. Why? Because once up on a time about 90 or so years ago, we had problems with vitamin deficiencies so the government began to mandate adding extra vitamins to milk. But the fact of the matter is that this hasn’t been necessary in, well, half a century, really. And there is actually a risk of getting too much A and D. Most European countries actually ban adding adding them to milk because of the risk of overdose. Too much D can cause heart arrhythmia and other problems and too much A can be seriously toxic as well.
Now I’m not going to get into the debate about whether or not D and A should or should not be added to milk. I just want to talk about this whole labeling nonsense because, well, according to the FDA’s own regulations, the agency’s actions in this case seem to be just wrong. Here is how FDA defines “milk”:
[Code of Federal Regulations]
[Title 21, Volume 2]
[Revised as of April 1, 2017]
TITLE 21–FOOD AND DRUGS
CHAPTER I–FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES
Subpart B–Requirements for Specific Standardized Milk and Cream
Sec. 131.110 Milk.
(a) Description. Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows. Milk that is in final package form for beverage use shall have been pasteurized or ultrapasteurized, and shall contain not less than 8 1/4 percent milk solids not fat and not less than 3 1/4 percent milkfat. Milk may have been adjusted by separating part of the milkfat therefrom, or by adding thereto cream, concentrated milk, dry whole milk, skim milk, concentrated skim milk, or nonfat dry milk. Milk may be homogenized.
(b) Vitamin addition (Optional). (1) If added, vitamin A shall be present in such quantity that each quart of the food contains not less than 2000 International Units thereof within limits of good manufacturing practice.
(2) If added, vitamin D shall be present in such quantity that each quart of the food contains 400 International Units thereof within limits of good manufacturing practice.
(c) Optional ingredients. The following safe and suitable ingredients may be used:
(1) Carriers for vitamins A and D.
(2) Characterizing flavoring ingredients (with or without coloring, nutritive sweetener, emulsifiers, and stabilizers) as follows:
(i) Fruit and fruit juice (including concentrated fruit and fruit juice).
(ii) Natural and artificial food flavorings.
(d) Methods of analysis. Referenced methods are from “Official Methods of Analysis of the Association of Official Analytical Chemists,” 13th Ed. (1980), which is incorporated by reference. Copies may be obtained from the AOAC INTERNATIONAL, 481 North Frederick Ave., suite 500, Gaithersburg, MD 20877, or may be examined at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). For information on the availability of this material at NARA, call 202-741-6030, or go to: http://www.archives.gov/federal_register/code_of_federal_regulations/ibr_locations.html.
(1) Milkfat content–“Fat, Roese-Gottlieb Method–Official Final Action,” section 16.059.
(2) Milk solids not fat content–Calculated by subtracting the milk fat content from the total solids content as determined by the method “Total Solids, Method I–Official Final Action,” section 16.032.
(3) Vitamin D content–“Vitamin D–Official Final Action,” sections 43.195-43.208.
(e) Nomenclature. The name of the food is “milk”. The name of the food shall be accompanied on the label by a declaration indicating the presence of any characterizing flavoring, as specified in 101.22 of this chapter.
(1) The following terms shall accompany the name of the food wherever it appears on the principal display panel or panels of the label in letters not less than one-half the height of the letters used in such name:
(i) If vitamins are added, the phrase “vitamin A” or “vitamin A added”, or “vitamin D” or “vitamin D added”, or “vitamin A and D” or “vitamins A and D added”, as is appropriate. The word “vitamin” may be abbreviated “vit.”.
(ii) The word “ultra-pasteurized” if the food has been ultra-pasteurized.
(2) The following terms may appear on the label:
(i) The word “pasteurized” if the food has been pasteurized.
(ii) The word “homogenized” if the food has been homogenized.
(f) Label declaration. Each of the ingredients used in the food shall be declared on the label as required by the applicable sections of parts 101 and 130 of this chapter.
[42 FR 14360, Mar. 15, 1977, as amended at 47 FR 11822, Mar. 19, 1982; 49 FR 10090, Mar. 19, 1984; 54 FR 24892, June 12, 1989; 58 FR 2890, Jan. 6, 1993]
If you can wade through the legalese up there, you will note that “milk” is specifically defined, and it says things like “if” vitamin A is added, and “if” vitamin D is added, they must be at certain levels. But it doesn’t say they mustbe added for the product to be called “milk”. Nor does it say anything about a requirement to label milk as “imitation” if they are not added. So if this is accurate, FDA’s claim that this creamery’s skim milk must be labeled “imitation” is not in keeping with FDA’s own regulations.
Now there may be some regulation, somewhere, that requires milk to have added A and D in order to be called “milk” but I haven’t managed to find any regulations that state explicitly that in order to label something “milk” it must have A and D added to it.
This isn’t the first time this issue has come up. About a year ago there was a case in Florida where the state claimed the Ocheesee Creamery couldn’t label it’s skim milk as “skim milk” and had to call it “imitation skim milk”, despite the fact it was 100% skim milk. The state lost and lost badly, ending up with the 11th US Circuit Court ruling against the state and Florida having to pay almost half a million dollars.
The other thing I find curious is that despite the fact that the FDA has a rather strict definition of the term “milk”, i.e. “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.”, it doesn’t seem to have a problem with various nut and legume juices and extracts labeling themselves as “milk”, such as soy milk and pea milk and almond milk.
The situation for dairy farmers in 2017 was not good. A lot of diary operations are running right on the edge, trying to stay profitable at a time when there is ever shrinking demand for liquid milk for drinking, and a glut of other dairy products like cheese, butter and powdered milk. This story above from NPR illustrates just how bad the situation is getting. Go read the article if you have the time. It isn’t very long.
If you don’t have the time, here’s a brief summary: A dairy co-op in the north east US, Agri-Mark, has seen three of it’s farmer members commit suicide in the last few years. Agri-Mark makes Cabot cheese among other products, and has about 1,000 members. In February when it sent out the milk checks, it included a chart showing just how bad the dairy market was looking for the upcoming year, and a list of suicide prevention hotlines. The reporter talked with Will Rogers, who milks 75 cows in Massachusetts, who is having a difficult time keeping above water. Even more upsetting is the fact that his own father who used to own the farm, killed himself because of financial problems.
While the letter from Agri-Mark was probably well intentioned, it certainly added to the stress a lot of it’s farmers are already facing and Rogers says in the article, it might push some farmers so far that they think “there’s no point in going on.” Agri-Mark certainly could have done a better job of trying to communicate with it’s farmer members.
And as if dairy farmers don’t have enough problems, they are increasingly worried about being able to sell their milk at all. Dean Foods just told at least two dozen farmers in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and four other states that Dean will no longer take their milk as of May 31, leaving them scrambling to find a milk processor they can sell their milk to.
The same thing happened here in Wisconsin last year about this time when Grassland rather abruptly dumped a group of farmers, leaving them to desperately try to find a market for their milk.
The article at Dairy Management about Dean seems to be trying to blame Walmart for Dean’s decision. Walmart used to buy it’s in-house brand milk from Dean, but Walmart is building it’s own milk processing facility in Indiana which will come on-line in May, so Dean is going to be losing a significant amount of sales as Walmart switches to product coming from it’s own production facility.
Certainly there is enough blame to go around, but everyone is ignoring the fact that the real reason behind almost all of the money difficulties dairy farmers are having is over production. They are producing more product than the market really wants, which is pushing prices down lower and lower.
Seventy-five percent. Think about that for a moment. We are facing a national health crisis due to people eating too much of what is bad for them, with government agencies and others trying to figure out how to help people get their weight under control, and at the same time other government agencies and marketing specialists are trying to get food manufacturers to drastically increase the amount of cheese they use in their products.