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from What is rBGH in non-organic milk?
Despite opposition from scientists, farmers and consumers, the US currently allows dairy cows to be injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). Developed and manufactured by the Bayer/Monsanto Corporation, this genetically engineered hormone forces cows to artificially increase milk production by 10 to 15 percent. In August 2008, Bayer/Monsanto sold their Posilac division to Eli Lilly and Company for $300 million and 'contigent consideration.' (Eli Lilly exclusively sold Posilac outside the US for 10 years before the acquisition.) Today, controversy still surrounds whether or not rBGH is safe for cows and humans.
What Is rBGH & rBST?
Somatotropin is a naturally-occurring protein hormone produced in the pituitary gland of animals; Bovine Somatotropin (BST or bST) triggers nutrients to increase growth in young cattle and lactation (milk production) in dairy cows. Artificial BST is produced using recombinant DNA technology (biotechnology), and called rBST for short. rBST is commonly known as Bovine Growth Hormone or rBGH. When injected into cows, rBGH increases milk production 10-15 percent and in some cases up to 40%. Approximately 17% of all cows in the US are given the artificial growth hormone.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approval for rBGH came in 1993. According to opponents of the drug, effects of rBGH were never properly studied. The FDA relied solely on one study administered by Bayer/Monsanto in which rBGH was tested for 90 days on 30 rats. The study was never published, and the FDA stated the results showed no significant problems.
The FDA continues to assure consumers that rBGH is safe for cows and humans, despite evidence to the contrary. In 1994, the FDA prohibited dairies from claiming there was any difference between milk from rBGH-injected cows and milk produced without the artificial hormone. This controversy, discussed below, continues today.
In 1998, an assessment by Health Canada (Canada's equivalent of the FDA), determined Bayer/Monsanto's results of their 90-day study showed concern and reasons for review before approval of rBGH. Today, the European Union, Japan, Australia and Canada have all banned the use of rBGH due to animal and human health concerns.
Animal And Human Risks A 1991 report by Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group, revealed serious health problems with the rBGH-injected cows that were part of a Bayer/Monsanto-financed study at the University of Vermont. Problems included an alarming rise in the number of deformed calves and dramatic increases in mastitis, a painful bacterial infection of the udder which causes inflammation, swelling, and pus and blood secretions into milk. To treat mastitis outbreaks, the dairy industry relies on antibiotics. Critics of rBGH point to the subsequent increase in antibiotic use (which contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria) and inadequacies in the federal government's testing program for antibiotic residues in milk. The FDA relies on pasteurization to kill off bacteria, hormones and antibiotics in milk.
By the summer of 1994, the Wisconsin Farmers Union and the National Farmers Union set up a joint hotline for dairy farmers to use when reporting problems with artificial growth hormones in cattle. One lifelong New York dairy farmer reported losing a quarter of his herd to severe mastitis after beginning rBGH injections. The same farmer reported a drastic drop in production after taking his cows off rBGH; they suddenly produced less milk then they had before going on the drug. A year later, he replaced 135 of his original 200 cows. Other farmers using rBGH report similar problems, in addition to hoof diseases, open sores and bovine death stemming from internal bleeding.
Cows forced to produce unnaturally high quantities of milk can become malnourished because they lose more nutrients through their milk than they ingest in their feed, and are therefore more susceptible to disease. In addition to artificial hormones, factory farms also use such methods as selective breeding, feeding dairy cows large amounts of grain (instead of grass), and exposing cows to longer periods of artificial light to make them produce more milk. Cows put under large amounts of stress do not live as long as cows that are not stressed.
Milk from rBGH-treated cows contains higher levels of IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor-1). Humans also naturally have IGF-1, and increased levels in humans have been linked to colon and breast cancer. Even though no direct connection has been made between elevated IGF-1 levels in milk and elevated IGF-1 levels or cancer in humans, some scientists have expressed concern over the possibility of this relationship16.
On the Offense
While the FDA was lax in its reviews of rBGH, Bayer/Monsanto aggressively tried to suppress the health risks involved in the use of the hormone. In 2001, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, two respected investigative journalists at a Fox News station in Tampa, Florida, were fired after months of controversy surrounding their investigative report on rBGH use in Florida dairies. According to the journalists, the station delayed airing their story and demanded they include inaccurate information about rBGH after Bayer/Monsanto threatened the station with legal action.
In 2003, Bayer/Monsanto asked the state of Maine to stop issuing an official Quality Seal, which the state only grants to dairies that do not use rBGH. Maine refused. Later that year, Bayer/Monsanto sued Oakhurst Dairy, Maine's largest dairy operation, over its rBGH-free labels. Ultimately, Oakhurst changed its labels, adding the statement, 'FDA States: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormone.'
The 1998 reviews by Health Canada determined the use of rBGH increases the risk of mastitis by 25 percent, affects reproductive functions, increases the risk of clinical lameness by 50 percent, and shortens the lives of cows. Nonetheless, Bayer/Monsanto lobbied the Canadian government hard to win rBGH approval. Dr. Margaret Hayden, a Health Canada researcher, reported to the Canadian Senate that officials from Bayer/Monsanto had offered between $1 million to $2 million to Health Canada scientists'an offer she says could only be understood as an attempted bribe20.
The Revolving Door
In light of the potential danger to the milk-drinking public and the proven danger to cows, how could the FDA allow rBGH on the market? Critics argue the approval was the result of pressure placed on the FDA by Bayer/Monsanto and its powerful lobbyists. Dr. Richard Burroughs, a senior FDA scientist overseeing the rBGH safety studies, claims he was fired because his concerns about the safety of rBGH delayed the approval process.
Critics note and condemn a 'revolving door' between the FDA and Bayer/Monsanto. For example, Michael Taylor, the FDA commissioner responsible for writing the labeling guidelines, had worked as a Bayer/Monsanto lawyer for seven years before joining the FDA. While at Bayer/Monsanto, he created their strategy for suppressing labeling information on rBGH. Likewise, the deputy director of the FDA's New Animal Drugs Office had been a Bayer/Monsanto research scientist working on rBGH safety studies, and another researcher in the same office had done Bayer/Monsanto-funded rBGH research at Cornell University, working under a paid Bayer/Monsanto consultant. Congress' General Accounting Office ruled in 1994 that none of these cases of longstanding connections to Bayer/Monsanto posed a conflict of interest. There are many more ties between Bayer/Monsanto and the U.S. government today, including Supreme Court Justices, the FDA, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
In The News Today
Despite Bayer/Monsanto's efforts to promote rBGH, farmers, consumers and health advocates are rejecting the hormone. In 2004, Bayer/Monsanto announced a 50 percent cutback of Posilac(R) production due to repeated bacteria contamination at their plant in Austria. While rumors have circulated that Bayer/Monsanto was preparing to phase out its sales of rBGH altogether, in 2006 they began production of Posalic(R) in a plant in Augusta, Georgia.
Out of growing consumer concern, some dairies label their milk as 'rBGH-free' or 'No artificial growth hormones.' In reaction to these labeling practices, a 'grassroots' non-profit called American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT) formed in February 2008 in an attempt to outlaw this labeling practice, claiming it libel. The group receives funding from Bayer/Monsanto and was formed by Osborne & Barr, an agriculture PR firm founded by two ex-Bayer/Monsanto employees.
Action is currently taking place around the United States about these labeling practices, including:
- In October 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, under the lead of Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff, outlawed the hormone-free labeling practice, claiming the labels are 'false' and 'misleading' to consumers. In reaction to public outcry, in January 2008, Governor Edward G. Rendell allowed hormone-free labeling to be reinstated.
- In February 2008, Ohio Agriculture Director Robert Boggs approved the use of rBGH-free labeling only if the FDA's disclaimer, 'no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-supplemented and non-rBST-supplemented cows,' also be supplied. In March 2008, the Ohio Department of Agriculture revised the law, claiming milk cannot contain labeling of 'compositional absence claims' (like 'hormone-free' or 'rBGH-free') and may only make 'production claims.' Any mention of rBGH on a label must be accompanied by the FDA's claim.
- Effective July 2008, House Bill 1300, introduced by Rep. William Friend, in the Indiana House of Representatives passed. The Bill makes synthetic hormone-free labeling illegal, claiming it 'misbranded' if 'compositional claims cannot be confirmed through laboratory analysis.' According to Health Canada, recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone cannot be detected in milk samples because it appears as regular Bovine Somatotropin in analysis.
Similar labeling controversies are currently underway in Kansas, Missouri, New Jersey, Utah and Vermont, and will most likely surface in more states in the coming months. Bayer/Monsanto continues to push the FDA to restrict the use of rBGH-free labeling.
While statewide controversies continue to surface, food producers and suppliers are listening to consumer concerns. In 2007, United States grocery chains Kroger and Safeway banned the use of rBGH-treated milk in their store-branded dairy products. In January 2008, Starbucks stopped using rBGH-treated milk, and in March 2008, WalMart banned rBGH use in their store-brand milk products.
Did You Know?
- Large dairy farms, those with more than 500 cattle, inject more rBGH into cows than medium and small herd farmers. 54% of large herd farmers use rBGH, compared with 32% medium herd and 8% small herd farmers.
- Cows injected with rBGH need more feed to produce milk at such demanding levels-- that means more farmland planted with feed and more pollutants into the atmosphere. Planting, pesticide sprays, harvest and transport pollutes the soil and water. Around 10 billion pounds of nitrogen fertilizer, in addition to other pollutants, are introduced into fields and waterways every year to feed CAFO cows.
- Bayer/Monsanto lists over 20 toxic side effects on its POSILAC label that rBGH has on cows.
If you want to keep rBGH-free labeling, or take further action, contact your State Governor by signing on to Food and Water Watch's rBGH Campaign.
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2.B.A. Crooker, et al. 'Dairy Research and Bovine Somatotropin.' University of Minnesota. 1994
3.Schneider, Keith, 'F.D.A. Warns the Dairy Industry Not to Label Milk Hormone-Free,' New York Times, February 8, 1994
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25.Martin, Andrew. New York Times. 'Fighting on a Battlefield the Size of a Milk Label.' March 9, 2008
26.Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. 'Agriculture Department Notifies Companies About False or Misleading Milk and Dairy Product Labels.' Press Release: Oct. 24, 2007
27.Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. 'Governor Rendell Says Consumers Can Have Greater Confidence in Milk Labels.' January 17, 2008
28. Ohio Department of Agriculture. 'Ohio Agriculture Department Files Revised Dairy Labeling Rule.' News Release. March 25, 2008
29.Indiana General Assembly. ' House Bill No. 1300.'
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32.Starbucks. 'Statement and Q&A-Starbucks Completes its Conversion ' All U.S. Company-Operated Stores Use Dairy Sourced Without the Use of rBGH. Accessed April 2008
33.WalMart Stores. 'Wal-Mart Offers Private Label Milk Produced without Artificial Growth Hormone.' March 21, 2008
34.Family Farm Defenders. "Bovine Growth Hormone." July 9, 2008
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