Food Facts: Milk Labels, Choices, and rBGH

milk-label.jpgMilk is big in our house. We eat ice cream, butter, cheese, and yogurt. I love my morning coffee with just enough half-and-half to turn it a lovely shade of caramel. My daughter drinks milk with lunch and dinner. When you factor in the pizza with mozzarella and the breakfast cereal, hardly a meal goes by that is dairy-free.

Haunting all this milk, filled with calcium, protein, and fat, has been a single question: what is the real story behind recombinant bovine growth hormone?

If you read about food in general, or genetically engineered organisms specifically, it can’t have escaped your notice that there is a battle raging in this country about the use of rBGH in dairy cows. It’s a battle being fought in grocery stores, state legislatures, the corporate offices of Monsanto Corporation and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Consumer groups, dairy farmers, animal welfare folks, and anti-cancer activists are involved. Because of all the milk products we consume, and my passion for food issues, I decided to try to shed some light on recombinant bovine growth hormone (also known as rBGH or rBST).

What is it? rBGH is a genetically engineered variant of a growth hormone in cows. When injected into dairy cows, it increases milk production by as much as 10-15%.

What is its history? The FDA approved the use of rBGH in 1993, and it has been controversial ever since. It is manufactured by the Monsanto Corporation, under the name Posilac. Its use is banned in the European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada, and many Americans are working to make it illegal. Key U.S. organizations campaigning to stop rBGH include Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Center for Food Safety, Food & Water Watch, and the Consumer’s Union. In response to consumer demand, an increasing number of U.S. food retailers are rejecting milk from cows treated with rBGH, including Starbucks, Kroger, and Wal-Mart.

Why is it so controversial? There are three chief concerns about the use of rBGH: harm to treated cows, antibiotic resistance, and an increased risk of certain cancers in humans.

Studies have documented that cows injected with rBGH have a 50% increase in lameness, a 25% increase in udder infections, multiple reproductive problems, and shortened life-spans.

Because of higher rates of infection, rBGH cows are treated with more antibiotics, which contributes to the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria, a serious and growing public health threat.

Finally, opponents of rBGH say it causes elevated levels of an insulin-like growth hormone, IFG-1, in treated cows’ milk. According to Dr. Jenny Pompilio, with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, elevated IGF-1 levels have been linked to breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers in humans. Monsanto vehemently denies there is any difference between milk from cows treated with rBGH and cows that aren’t treated.

What is happening now? In response to growing consumer demand for milk from rBGH-free cows, Monsanto has launched a nation-wide effort to make it illegal to label dairy products that come from untreated cows. They have funded a thinly disguised “grassroots” organization, AFACT, to protect the “rights” of diary farmers to continue injecting cows with rBGH. State-by-state, they have tried to make such labeling illegal, and they have even tried to get the FDA to ban rBGH-free labels nationally. However, there is growing alarm about both the human health threats and the animal cruelty issues surrounding rBGH use. According to a USDA survey, about 17% of dairy cows were injected with rBGH in 2007, down from 22% in 2002.

The bottom line? We should never introduce something into our food system that increases the suffering of livestock we keep, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and possibly cancer risk. As more and more U.S. consumers and food retailers are rejecting milk from cows treated with rBGH, I urge you to do the same.

For a partial list of rBGH-free dairy producers:

Certified organic milk must come from cows not treated with rBGH.

7 thoughts on “Food Facts: Milk Labels, Choices, and rBGH”

  1. The state-by-state battle was a tactic by Monsanto lobbyists to get around the national FDA ruling that allows labeling for “rBGH-free.” So far Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Kansas among others have had to deal with these legislative battles. Word is Missouri is next on the roster. Keep an eye out for the issue to come up in your own state.

    This is not just about milk labels. This is about a consumer’s right to know what is in her food, how it was produced and where it was produced. The rBGH label is just one of many food label issues that we consumers need to be aware of and actively voicing our views on to our reps.

  2. I wish all farmers, businesses, governments and individuals would operate under the precautionary principle. ( How can we get this to become an accepted cultural norm – a foundation on which we operate without question, and outside of which is an aberration?

  3. I am glad that Canada opted to no allow rBGH to be injected in cows north of the border. Unfortunately, there is no way to test for rBGH, and imported dairy products are not labeled. I agree that this is an important issue, and I think that the greatest cause for concern is the shortage of animal feeding (or even human impact, for that matter) studies, so we really dont know what it will do to us.
    Thanks to Monsanto lobbying, we rejected rBGH because of cruelty to animals, not harm to human health.

  4. If a U.S. milk does NOT say “rbgh-free” is it safe to assume the cows are treated with the hormone? The milk served at my daughter’s preschool says nothing about rbgh on the label and I would like to request they choose a different brand.

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