By Colette Fox
Milk does a body good, according to the advertising slogan and nutritional guidelines. But which milk does our bodies the most good? In order to reduce fat, many of us long ago switched from whole milk to low fat or skim. And a growing number of us now buy organic milk, even though it can easily double the milk budget.
More and more supermarkets are making that choice easy. Grocery stores across the country operated by The Kroger Company are only selling milk without rBST.
The acronym rBST stands for recombinant bovine somatotropin – a synthetic hormone given to cows to boost their milk supply. It is used interchangeably with rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone.
By either name, the growth hormone has been implicated as possibly not doing human bodies “good” by raising the risk of certain human cancers and resistance to antibiotics, though the evidence is inconclusive.
Lately, consumers have indicated they don’t want to wait for the final proof on whether rBST is safe.
Both Kroger (with more than 2,500 stores across the nation) and the Safeway (with more than 1,700) report that they are responding to customer requests by providing hormone-free milk.
Safeway store-owned brands of milk — such as Lucerne — are rBGH-free, although Safeway stores may sell other brands that are not, according to spokeswoman Teena Massingill. “Our goal is to provide our customers with products they want,” she says.
Even your latte is now rBGH–free – at least if you buy it at Starbucks. Since January 2008, all Starbucks milk, half & half and whipping cream comes from suppliers that do not use rBGH. According to Starbucks, the change is “in response to requests from our customers.”
At the same time, Starbucks stopped offering organic milk, which had been available at an additional cost. The company says its conversion to rBGH-free dairy eliminates “the primary reason our customers ordered organic.”
Milk that’s certified rBGH-free is typically more expensive than conventional milk, but well below the cost of organic — which by definition is free of artificial hormones along with pesticides, antibiotics and synthetic fertilizers.
Sara Kaplaniak, a mother of two in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, believes the premium price is worth it – for both rBGH-free and organic. “If you want to send a message, watch what you buy,” Kaplaniak says. “I try to direct my limited salary toward products that are kinder to the environment and to humans.”
The challenge for consumers is to identify milk from treated and untreated cows – since manufacturers are not required to label it one way or the other – and to decide whether rBGH is something worth worrying about. Those two dilemmas define the current controversy.
THE HISTORY OF BOVINE GROWTH HORMONES
The use of rBST goes back 14 years, but the heightened consumer awareness is fairly recent. “It’s in the last two years where this has really become a phenomenon that is national in scope,” says Chris Galen of the National Milk Producers Federation.
The genetically engineered hormone was developed by the Monsanto company to supplement dairy cows’ natural bovine growth hormone and stimulate milk production. The FDA approved rBST in 1993 — in what opponents call one of the FDA’s most controversial decisions – and Monsanto began selling it the following year under the brand name Posilac. But nearly a decade would pass before many consumers and retailers started demanding rBGH-free milk.
One of the earliest opponents was the ice cream company, Ben & Jerry’s of Vermont, which began posting this label on its ice cream cartons in 1997: “We oppose Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone. The family farmers who supply our milk and cream pledge not to treat their cows with rBGH.” On its website, Ben & Jerry’s says it believes rBGH “is a step in the wrong direction toward a synthetic, chemically-intensive, factory-produced food supply.”
Gradually, other companies started requesting rBGH-free milk from their processors, who in turn demanded it from farmers. “There really is no difference between the milk,” says Peggy Armstrong of the International Dairy Foods Association, which represents dairy manufacturers. “But consumers have expressed interest in organic and are looking at things they may consider to be more natural.”
“We’ve always pressured grocers, coffee shops and restaurants to carry organic and rBGH-free milk,” says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. “There is a tremendous and growing consumer demand because of health, environmental, and ethical concerns.”
Although Kroger and other retailers cite those customer requests, the dairy industry says the demand originated with retailers who see “rBGH-free” as a smart advertising strategy. “This is certainly a trend that’s happening across the country, but I’d be surprised if there were data that would indicate there’s been a sea change in consumer attitudes in the past two years,” says Galen of the National Milk Producers. “It has become a trend in terms of marketing.”
Galen says the decision to use Posilac is a personal decision made by a minority of dairy farmers. “It’s just like any other tool. Some people find certain tools useful and other people don’t. The majority of farmers haven’t used (Posilac) so for them it’s really no skin off their back.”
A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey in 2007 determined that about 15% of dairy farms use rBST and 17% of cows are injected. That’s down from 22% of cows in 2002. Large farms are far more likely to use rBST than small farms.
As part of its Campaign for Safe Food, the Oregon chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility has compiled a growing list of companies that have gone partially or completely rBGH-free. Project Director Richard North estimates that 40-50% of milk on the market today is rBGH-free and 6-7% is organic. (link below)
“Organic sales have been growing fast on a percentage basis, but it’s still a small drop in the bucket overall,” says Chris Galen. “This is a way for marketers to capture sort of an organic lite product without having to pay the higher price for true certified organic dairy products.”
RESEARCH SHOWS RISKS; HEALTH EFFECTS UNCERTAIN
To complicate this controversy, the public health research on rBGH is far from black and white.
The FDA continues to maintain that there is no difference in the nutrition or safety of milk from rBST-treated vs. untreated cows.
Other studies – mostly conducted in other countries — have failed to find conclusive evidence of dangers to human health. Still, a cadre of environmental, public health and consumer advocates are advising us to play it safe. Suspected health risks have stopped other industrialized countries from approving rBGH, including Canada, Japan, Australia and European Union nations.
They have three chief concerns: harm to the cows being treated, antibiotic resistance and an increased risk of certain cancers.
It’s not disputed that rBGH causes medical conditions in cows, including increased rates of an udder infection called mastitis, lameness and infertility. Some scientists and animal welfare advocates say the injections also shorten a cow’s life span.
Cows with mastitis are treated with antibiotics, leading to concern about antibiotic resistance in humans. The Consumer Union’s senior scientist Michael Hansen called this a legitimate health concern in an op-ed he recently co-authored: “Bacteria resistant to these antibiotics may pass into humans through milk, air, water or soil…increasing antibiotic resistance.”
Opponents of rBGH say it leads to higher levels of another hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 — or IGF-1 — in cow’s milk. Jenny Pompilio, a doctor with the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility says, “elevated levels of IGF-1 can promote cancers in humans, specifically cancers such as breast, prostate and colorectal cancer.” However, rBGH defenders say IGF-1 does not survive digestion in the human body.
The Oregon PSR has produced an online video and brochure called “Know Your Milk.” Richard North says that despite the lack of a definitive long-term study, there is clear cause for concern. “There’s not 100% proof, but a lot of evidence is pointing in that direction,” North explains. “So our stance is better safe than sorry.”
CHECK THE LABEL — IF YOU CAN — FOR rBGH
If you want to avoid rBGH, look for phrases like these on the milk you buy: “produced without artificial hormones,” “rBGH-free,” “rBST-free” or “from cows not treated with rBST.” The product labels appear to be an effective advertisement.
Britt Riedl-Young of Reno, Nevada says she learned about the issue from a milk carton. “I just went to buy milk and when I got it home I noticed that there was a small circle on the label that told me it was hormone free,” Riedl recalls. “I was super happy about it and continued looking for that type of milk.”
This trend has driven Monsanto and some farmers to lobby against the labels. A group of farmers recently launched their own advocacy group called AFACT — American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology — to defend their use of Posilac and other biotechnology products.
About half a dozen states have tried to ban or restrict the so-called “absence labels,” partly because there is no test to differentiate between the natural and synthetic BST in milk.
So far, opposition from consumer and retail advocates has won out. Last month, Pennsylvania backed down and withdrew a short-lived ban on the labels. However, the state now requires certification from milk producers to support their rBGH-free claims.
Sara Kaplaniak, the mom from Harrisburg, is pleased with the reversal. “I believe that absolutely a company should be able to put on the label that the milk has been produced without anything extra in the way of hormones and additives. It matters.”
Many in the dairy industry agree that consumers have a right to know how their milk is made – and suppliers have a right to tell them. “We believe that our members have the right to include truthful and not misleading information on their labels,” says Armstrong from the IDFA. “They’re asking to at least know what they’re drinking so they can make more informed choices. But really what it comes down to is — milk is milk.”
The FDA urges – but does not require – rBST-free labels to include a disclaimer to counter the implication that the milk is safer. Ben & Jerry’s complies with this sentence: “The FDA has said no significant difference has been shown and no test can now distinguish between milk from rBGH treated and untreated cows.”
As more shoppers become aware of rBGH, milk producers and retailers are lining up to give them what they want.
“More and more consumers are looking for rBGH-free products,” sums up Richard North. “So this is a good marketing tool. It’s not only the right thing, it’s the smart thing for them to do.”