THE PRESS DEMOCRAT | September 20, 2016, 7:25PM
Petaluma-based Clover Stornetta Farms next year will start to make all its dairy products free of genetically modified organisms.
In the first quarter of 2017, the Bay Area’s largest dairy processor will sell a new product, “Non-GMO Project Verified” conventional milk, President/CEO Marcus Benedetti said Tuesday.
Clover will start its transition with all conventional milk sold in half-gallon cartons, including the various weights from nonfat to whole milk. Over the next two years the company will switch all its other liquid milk products, like half-and-half and buttermilk, to non-GMO production, with a goal of eventually adding ice cream and other food products. GMOs appear in dairy products through livestock feed.
Clover’s plan is unusual and possibly unique among the nation’s larger dairy processors.
Benedetti said Clover would be the first dairy processor in the state to sell conventional GMO-free milk and “the first of any scale anywhere” to do so.
The Non-GMO Project, the Bellingham, Wash., nonprofit that will verify Clover’s products, said it doesn’t comment on who is first to make various GMO-free products.
The company will continue to produce its lines of organic milk products as well, which under federal rules are and must be GMO free. But the new initiative will allow consumers a non-GMO option that is cheaper than typical organic products.
While acknowledging sharp differences of opinion both locally and nationally over GMOs, Benedetti said their inclusion in milk products has raised uncertainty and anxiety on the part of consumers. Removing the GMOs removes the uncertainty.
“Right now we’re hearing loud and clear they want a choice,” Benedetti said of shoppers. “They want an alternative.”
The federal government, many scientists and food producers say foods produced with genetically modified ingredients are safe. In May, the National Academy of Sciences released a nearly 400-page study that concluded there currently exists no “persuasive evidence” of human health risks or adverse environmental effects directly related to genetically engineered foods.
In a season when Sonoma County voters soon will decide whether to ban GMO crops in all unincorporated areas, Clover’s announcement was met with surprise and mixed reactions in the local grocery and dairy industries.
“I think it’s great they’re transparent with everything they do,” said Steve Maass, the owner and founder of Cotati-based Oliver’s Markets. As for GMO-free conventional milk, he said, “I think our customers are very interested in it.”
Meanwhile, Stephanie Larson, director of the UC Cooperative Extension in Sonoma County, found the switch “disconcerting,” and “not based on science.”
Shoppers already can obtain GMO-free foods by buying organic, she said. But non-GMO conventional milk will have to cost more than regular milk and for many that will “limit folks’ ability to buy local products.”
The 39-year-old Clover is known among shoppers for its iconic, homespun Clo the Cow, easily the county’s most recognized business mascot. But among the region’s dairy industry it is known as a sizable player. Among non-store-owned dairy brands, Clover accounts for 57 percent of all milk sold in the greater Bay Area and Sacramento Valley, the company said, based on Nielsen data.
The company took an early stand two decades ago to ensure that all the cows at its partner dairies remain free of the controversial growth hormone BST. It also was the first dairy in the nation certified for the care of animals by the American Humane Association and later became a major producer of organic milk.
“One of the reasons there is a dairy industry in Sonoma County is because of Clover,” said Tom Scott, a member of Oliver’s board of directors and the company’s recently retired CEO.
Scott said the milk industry has plenty of competition and going GMO free will help Clover distinguish itself. “I think it’s brilliant,” he said.
As a prelude to the switch, Clover began talking to its conventional farmers here and in the Central Valley a year ago about whether it made sense to go GMO free, Benedetti said. A consultant helped determine that the right mix of non-GMO feed would be available for each dairy.
The farmers will receive a premium for their milk, part of which will offset higher costs, he said.
The company has yet to reveal what the GMO-free milk will cost consumers, but Benedetti said initially “we’re going to absorb a lot of the cost internally.”
When considering shoppers, he said, the aim is to “not shock them with a major price increase and to see what the level of acceptance is” for the new GMO-free products.
Clover’s move comes at a time when more manufacturers are making GMO-free foods and other products. The Non-GMO Project said it approved its first product six years ago and now has verified more than 40,000 items.
Whole Foods, Target, Sprouts and Raley’s are working with the nonprofit for their private label brand,
A press release on the Non-GMO Project website states that “approximately 90 percent of livestock feed produced in the U.S. is derived from genetically modified corn, soy and alfalfa.” But French multinational food maker Danone announced this year that it will work with the nonprofit to make its Oikos, Dannon and Danimals brands GMO free, a move that will involve the conversion of 80,000 acres of farmland.
Doug Beretta, an organic dairy farmer in Santa Rosa and a leader in the county’s farm industry, said the news surprised him and caused him to wonder if confused shoppers would wind up switching to GMO-free milk from organic, the latter being the only federally regulated certification system for more natural food.
The switch seems “a marketing tool,” said Beretta, adding “I’m worried if it starts taking away from organic sales.”
For his part, Benedetti was quick to say that the officials at Clover “are not the scientific experts,” but consumers expect the company “to mitigate their fears and address their hopes.”
“I do fundamentally believe that it is the right thing to do to provide a choice in the marketplace that is different than the status quo,” he said.