If you look hard at the carton of milk in your fridge right now, you may find the following in very small type: “Made from milk from cows not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone. According to the FDA, no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH-treated and non-treated cows.”
Wait, what? So is it or isn’t it good for you? The milk doesn’t have it, but even if it did, that would be OK? Anyone who has worked in business for more than 10 minutes will be able to smell the distinctive scent of lawyers in that statement.
First, some background. Bovine somatotropin (BST), also known as bovine growth hormone (BGH), is a protein hormone that occurs naturally in cattle, playing a role in the cow’s growth and development (all mammals, including humans, have some variant of it).
Let’s have a quick lesson about cows.
A typical cow’s lactation period is a cycle that rises, peaks and falls. When she starts lactating, she produces a modest, but increasing, amount of milk. Her output increases until about day 70 of the cycle, when production peaks. After that, her production slowly decreases. The reason is that the number of milk-producing cells in her udder begins to drop. Once her lactation decreases and she goes “dry,” she doesn’t produce milk again until the next lactation cycle starts.
Back in 1937, someone discovered that by injecting lactating cows with bovine somatotropin derived from dead cows, you could postpone the decline of milk producing cells, prolonging the cow’s lactation period. But injecting anything with cells from a corpse and trying to resell it as food usually doesn’t go down well with health authorities, so the discovery was little more than a tidbit of academic interest.
Fast-forward to 1994, and agribusiness giant Monsanto was able to artificially synthesized BST using recombinant DNA technology (interestingly enough, by genetically engineering the E. coli bacteria). The resulting product, recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST) or recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), was branded as the drug Posilac and revolutionized dairy farming. Cows injected with it gave 10 percent or more milk than untreated cows by slowing down death of milk-producing cells.
Not everyone was happy about it, though, including the cows.
Early studies showed that the use of rBST increased the levels of the insulin-like hormone IGF-1 in milk. IGF-1 is naturally occurring in humans (it stimulates growth in children), but environmental exposure to additional IGF-1 (drunk in milk, for example) has been conclusively linked to a number of human health problems, including hormone-based cancers.
A number of dairy farmers elected not to use Posilac. From the time it went on the market, usage was generally linked to the size of the dairy farm. According a 2007 survey by the USDA, only 9.1 percent of dairy farms with less than 100 cows used rBGH, compared to 28.8 percent of farms with 100 to 499 cows and 42.7 percent of farms with more than 500 cows. In essence, large dairy farms were more than four times as likely to use the stuff.
Smaller farms and organic farms, spotting a marketing niche, began to advertise their milk as coming from cows untreated with rBST/rBGH. Monsanto, sensing that such advertising might lead consumers to conclude that their drug led to negative health consequences, immediately set forth a team of lawyers (remember the lawyers?) to try and smack down the labeling. Oakhurst Dairy in Maine, one of the first to begin using the rBST-free labeling, was an early target. In 2003, Monsanto sued Oakhurst Dairy for advertising that its milk products came from cows untreated with rBST. The president of Oakhurst responded by saying, “We ought to have the right to let people know what is and is not in our milk.”
Some courts disagreed with that assessment. Eventually, Oakhurst and Monsanto settled out of court, with Oakhurst adding the note at the end of the claim that “ the FDA claims there is no major difference between milk from rbST-treated and non rBST-treated cows.” Thousands of other non-rbST dairies followed suit using the same language in order to avoid the hairy legal eyeball of Monsanto, and it became standard language on many hormone-free dairy products.
As of today, the United States is the only developed nation in the world to allow humans to consume dairy product from cows treated with rBST. Posilac has been banned from use in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all European Union countries, seriously curtailing the U.S. export of dairy products to those countries.
Human health risks aside, Posilac is also not very good for cows. One study showed that while it does indeed increase milk output in cows, rBGH raises the risk of mastitis (an infection of the milk ducts) by 25 percent, decreases a cow’s fertility by as much as 40 percent and ups the cow’s risk of developing “lameness” (which can mean hoof problems or issues with back and leg muscles) by 55 percent. The same study reported a decrease in body condition of cows treated with rBST.
The health risks to cows are no deep, dark secret. The product labeling on Posilac reads, “Cows injected with Posilac are at an increased risk for clinical mastitis (visibly abnormal milk)…In some herds, use of Posilac has been associated with increases in somatic cell counts [pus and bacteria]. Cows injected with Posilac may experience periods of increased body temperature unrelated to illness… Use of Posilac may result in an increase in digestive disorders such as indigestion, bloat and diarrhea…Studies indicated that cows injected with Posilac had increased numbers of enlarged hocks and lesions (e.g., lacerations, enlargements, calluses) of the knee…and…of the foot region.”
Wait…pus? Yum. Nothing makes a bowl of ice cream tastier than a little pus. Instead of ceasing to use the stuff, however, many farms merely treated the cow’s resulting infections (and the pus) by administering antibiotics. You don’t need an expert to tell you that consuming antibiotics you don’t need, even in trace amounts, isn’t good for you or for public health.
Meanwhile, Monsanto’s lawyers were busy with the companies advertising rBGH-free milk. Wrote Tom Laskawy on the Web site Grist.org, “In 2007, Monsanto, which created and manufactured Posilac, the most popular form of rBST, began encouraging its dairy-farmer customers to protest their rBGH-free competitors’ labeling. Campaigns to restrict rBGH-free labeling were launched in 14 states…but only Ohio passed the effort.”
Those with a commercial interest in making and using rBGH have lobbied hard and even played dirty to keep it out of consumer’s cross-hairs. In 1997, Jane Akre, a journalist for a Fox News affiliate in Florida, WTVT, refused to falsify a news report about the health risks of rBGH (she had planned to present credible studies pointing to human health risks from the hormone). As a result, she was fired from her position – Monsanto apparently called the president of Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes – and the planned report was pulled. Akre sued and won, in part, though the decision was overturned on appeal. WTVT successfully argued that the FCC policy against falsification was not a “law, rule, or regulation,” just a guideline. In other words, the FOX affiliate station proved in court that it was entitled, under First Amendment rights, to lie about the human health effects of something millions of Americans consume each day.
This story and others, however, caught public attention, and the column inches condemning both Monsanto and rBGH began to build. Seeing public opinion increasingly against them, Monsanto cut its losses and sold Posilac to a subsidiary of Eli Lilly in 2008.
Meanwhile, Ohio farmers were still legally restricted from advertising rBGH-free milk for another two years until sanity prevailed in the form of a legal appeal by farmers who didn’t use the stuff. In September 2010, the U.S. court of appeal found, after examining a number of studies, that despite FDA claims, there IS a “compositional difference” between milk from rBSG-treated cows and untreated milk. In striking down Ohio’s ban on labeling, the court offered three reasons why the milk is different, including:
- Increased levels of the insulin-like hormone IGF-1, which is known to cause some cancers;
- Lower nutritional quality of the milk during some stages of lactation; and
- Increased somatic cell counts (a fancy word for “the milk contains pus”) that cause the milk to turn sour faster.
As a result of this ruling, dairy farms in Ohio that wish to advertise that their products are “rBGH/rBST-free” and “artificial hormone free” are now legally able to do so. Artificial hormone-free dairy farms in other states, as well, felt comfortable dropping the weasel words about the FDA finding no difference between milk produced with and without on product labeling.
The really problematic compound in treated milk, IGF-1, doesn’t survive digestion, the FDA had initially claimed. Some studies done in the 1990s appeared to say otherwise: after all, milk does “coat” the digestive track, and this protective action can render the digestive acids less effective (this is why many medications advise “do not take with milk”), enabling more than enough of the substance to go systemic in humans. Increased IGF-1 has been found to raise risks of many kinds of hormone-linked cancers, including prostate and pre-menopausal breast cancers.
But it’s neither law nor health studies that have tipped the balance against rBST: it was consumer preference leading to good old-fashioned market pressure. (Ohio’s ban on labeling milk free of growth hormones outraged a lot of people.) Thanks to consumer awareness and demand, approximately 60 percent of milk sold in the U.S. today is rBST-free (though some estimates say as much as 75 percent is free of it), labeled or not, according to the Center for Food Safety. That still leaves a lot of milk treated with rBST in the food chain, and even more yogurt, cheese and ice cream from treated cows. (Most major brands of ice cream in the U.S., except for
Ben & Jerry’s, are made with milk from treated cows.)
Prefer your milk without the pus, antibiotics and hormone-linked cancer risks? Buy organic, or check the labels first. The cows will thank you.