- Kraft Heinz announced it is now sourcing milk for its Kraft Natural Cheese from cows raised without recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), an artificial growth hormone used to increase milk production. The company added that no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated and non-rbST-treated cows.
- This change includes the company's shredded cheese, natural slices, blocks and snacking cheese products, but not its Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, Touch of Philadelphia or Kraft Processed Cheese, Kraft noted in a release.
- Anne Field, director of brand building, told Food Ingredients First the company had received "overwhelmingly positive feedback" after asking consumers how they felt about the product without rbST. "This change and announcement have been in the works for a few years and every change comes with challenges," she said. "The Kraft cheese portfolio spans a vast amount of varieties and forms, so a large amount of diligence has been required to make this transition across the portfolio."
Kraft said it believes "consumers deserve cheese as it should be," and more than half of all consumers try to avoid added hormones in their food. Therefore, the company wants to position its products to align with consumer trends and give them an advantage in a market crowded with dairy products.
This change comes at a difficult time for the dairy industry. Sales of American cheese are dropping as millennials and others turn to imports and fancier styles, while U.S. cheese stockpiles are at their highest point ever. Also, tariff disputes have sliced into exports to China and Mexico, and milk and cheese prices are dropping as a result. Consumers are also increasingly turning to plant-based dairy alternatives, including non-dairy cheeses, so Kraft has a lot of good reasons to elevate its product profile and grab attention with this sourcing switch.
It's difficult to tell how much U.S. cheese is made with milk from cows injected with rbST since the Food and Drug Administration does not require that its presence be labeled. But the Center for Food Safety has a guide to help track company practices in this area. It's likely the amount is dropping overall as a growing number of consumers reject artificial ingredients in their foods and beverages.
Some of that concern is for human health — although the FDA concluded there are no serious risks from rbST and approved its use in dairy cows in 1993. The Canadian government concluded similarly when it comes to human health, but because it found risks to animal health, rbST was banned for sale in that country. The use of rbST is also not permitted in the European Union or Japan.
Kraft cheese won't be the only one on the market that can make this claim. Alta Dena, a California-based producer of milk and other dairy products, labels its products as containing no artificial growth hormones. Dean Foods' DairyPure milk brand has made that claim the first of a five-point "purity promise." The Dallas-based company noted it requires dairy farmers to sign an affidavit stating none of their cows are treated with artificial growth hormones.
Both companies added this statement to their product labeling: "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from cows treated with the artificial growth hormone rbST and non-rbST-treated cows." The FDA issued guidance in 1994 that such a statement might reduce consumer confusion, since the hormone is naturally present in milk, and the term "rbST free" could imply a difference between milk from treated and untreated cows.
Still, some U.S. states are phasing it out. In Wisconsin — the No. 2 dairy-producing state by number of cows — most dairy processors are not accepting milk from cows treated with rbST, according to Wisconsin Public Radio. Close to 90% of the state's milk was expected to be free of the artificial growth hormone by last year, John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, told WPR. Manufacturers have begun charging more for milk without rbST, he added.
While Kraft's Anne Field said the company's newly non-rbST cheese products would be provided "at no additional cost," that could change if consumers flock to them in sufficient numbers. Kraft may also decide to extend the new milk-sourcing policy to its other dairy products. And since it is one of the biggest players in the cheese segment, whatever it does will likely impact and influence other producers.