In September 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit overturned an Ohio law that hindered consumers’ ability to make a clear distinction between dairy products produced with controversial genetically engineered hormones and those produced without. The Ohio rule had prohibited dairy producers from labeling their products with statements identifying them as free of recombinant bovine somatotropin, the synthetic growth hormone commonly referred to as rBST or rBGH. The federal court struck down the Ohio law, concluding that labels such as “rBGH-free” are not inherently misleading and could not be prohibited by the state.
“This is a big win for consumers,” says Michael Hansen, senior scientist at Consumers Union. “I’m glad that the U.S. court finally listened to the science and ruled that there are compositional differences between milk from treated and non-treated cows. Now Ohio consumers will be able to decide for themselves and choose dairy products labeled as ‘rBGH-free.’”
The genetically engineered growth hormone, originally manufactured by Monsanto and sold under the name Posilac, was approved in 1993 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to increase milk production in cows. Since its approval, scientists worldwide have cautioned that the use of rBGH is potentially harmful to consumers and have called for further studies. Consumers and scientists have also expressed concern about the use of rBGH because of the hormone’s effect on dairy cow welfare — rBGH increases instances of mastitis, a painful udder infection that requires antibiotic treatment for the animal and leads to pus in its milk. The increased use of antibiotics consequently contributes to the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
An overwhelming majority of Americans wants this information on labels: The Consumer Reports National Research Center polled more than 1,000 people nationwide on various food labeling issues, and about 76 percent said they were concerned with “dairy cows given synthetic growth hormones.” Eighty-eight percent agreed that “milk from cows raised without synthetic bovine growth hormone should be allowed to be labeled as such.”
The United States is one of the few industrialized nations that allows the use of artificial growth hormones to stimulate milk production in dairy herds. The practice is prohibited in Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and the entire European Union. All certified organic milk in the United States is rBGH-free.