Protection from Hormones in Milk

Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) helps dairies produce a large volume of milk. But increased production comes at a price; artificial hormones in milk are risky for people that drink the milk.

| June/July 2008

  • Certified Organic Milk
    One way to avoid rBGH is to choose certified organic milk.  Its producers are not allowed to use the hormone.
    Photo courtesy Organic Valley

  • Certified Organic Milk

Consumer opposition to artificial hormones in milk is rising, but Monsanto just won’t give up. Injecting cows with Monsanto’s genetically engineered rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) is like injecting human athletes with illegal hormones and steroids. It may have a short-term performance-enhancing effect (in the cows’ case, 5 percent to 15 percent more milk per lactation cycle), but cows treated with rBGH suffer from higher rates of mastitis (inflammation of the udder), birth disorders, hoof problems, diarrhea and other ailments. Because of these concerns, rBGH is prohibited in most industrialized nations, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and all of the European Union nations.

Here in the United States, however, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved rBGH (also known as rBST, for recombinant bovine somatotropin) in 1993. The Monsanto Corp. — the sole vendor of the drug, trademarked Posilac — promptly launched an aggressive marketing campaign, and by 1998, some 30 percent of U.S. dairy cows were on the stuff.

Hormones in Milk and Human Health

Some research indicates that rBGH is not just bad for cows, it’s also bad for humans that consume milk from those cows. The health hazards for humans are twofold, explains Rick North of Physicians for Social Responsibility: antibiotic resistance and a possible link to cancer. “There’s no doubt whatsoever that rBGH use increases disease in cows, which in turn leads to more use of antibiotics,” North says. To treat mastitis, farmers use antibiotics such as erythromycin, amoxicillin and penicillin. The more these are used in agriculture, the less effective they are against human diseases.

And then there’s the cancer risk. Studies have shown that rBGH increases levels of another hormone in milk called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1). IGF-1 is produced naturally by both cows and humans, but elevated levels of IGF-1 in people are associated with breast, prostate and colorectal cancers.

Fight for Your Right to Know

The efforts by Monsanto to prevent the public from determining which products are “rBGH-free” have cemented its image as a rapacious corporate bully. In 2003, the company sued Oakhurst Dairy of Portland, Maine, for putting a statement on its cartons that read “no artificial growth hormones.” A settlement allowed Oakhurst to keep their claim if they added a disclaimer saying the FDA has found no significant difference between milk produced with or without rBGH.

Most recently, Monsanto has been pursuing its pro-Posilac campaign at the state level. In October 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) stunned farmers, processors and consumers alike by declaring “rBGH-free” milk labeling illegal. After a flood of protests, the agency withdrew the ban, but not before Monsanto and PDA issued a series of statements claiming that consumers were “confused” by “misleading” labeling and that demand for rBGH-free milk was nonexistent. (At press time, similar events were occurring in New Jersey, Ohio, Kansas, Utah and Indiana.)

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