Natural Foods Merchandiser

The battle over synthetic milk hormones

by Samuel Fromartz

The Organic Trade Association last month filed suit against a new milk labeling rule in Ohio that bans statements about production methods, such as "no artificial hormones."

This suit was the latest bid to block the lobbying by Monsanto Corp.'s advocates who are seeking to limit label claims on milk in a state-by-state campaign. The International Dairy Foods Association filed suit too.

If successful, the label limitations would prevent consumers from choosing milk that is produced without synthetic growth hormones. Monsanto argues that there is no difference between milk produced with the added growth hormones and milk without it. But consumers advocates — and consumers themselves — take a different view. They want choice.

A similar attempt by Pennsylvania to limit the wording of milk labels was overturned by the governor earlier this year, after a letter writing campaign by consumers and advocacy groups.

Indiana also considered similar legislation, but it failed to get traction in the state legislature. A bill in Missouri failed to pass. Kansas considered a law but it didn’t make it through the legislature, nor did an attempt in Vermont.

Now, Kansas is revisiting the issue and Utah is considering rules similar to the ones Ohio adopted.

It's all part of a concerted effort to save rBGH, the milk-boosting synthetic hormone. Although the hormone was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993, it has been on a downward spiral.

Walmart has pledged to move away from milk from cows treated with rBST. Kraft is introducing an rBGH-free line of cheese, and Dean Foods, the largest milk processor in the nation, is moving away from the synthetic hormone. Kroger has banned the hormone from its store brand milk.

The hormone has been banned in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Like all genetically modified food, it is banned in organic agriculture.

Aside from the impact on animal health, such as mastitis (an udder infection) consumer advocates are concerned that the synthetic hormone increases levels of IGF-1, a hormone that in some studies has been linked to increase breast and prostate cancer risk.

In the US, the American Nurses Association recently voted to help "eliminate the use or rBGH in the US by appealing to those who make purchasing decisions within the institutions where we work."

So if nurses are so concerned, why are states trying to ban a label that would give consumers a way to avoid milk produced with the hormones?

"This is something the Monsanto lobby must do because the market is starting to work against the product," Michael Hansen, a staff scientist at Consumers Union, said.

Last year, Monsanto appealed to the FDA to review the approved label wording for rBGH that allows for so-called absence claims, such as "produced without synthetic hormones." Monsanto also sought action from the Federal Trade Commission to block advertising of milk produced without rBGH.

The FDA declined to act, noting that it would only intervene in cases where fraudulent claims — as opposed to product descriptions — were made on the milk label. The FTC, in dismissing Monsanto's complaint, also found no instance where a national company made false claims about rBST.

The Monsanto lobby also has a research wing. A recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the drug can reduce greenhouse gasses, since cows receiving it are said to be more productive. Dairy cows produce about 20 percent of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

But an article in Scientific American poured cold water on those environmentally-friendly claims, pointing out that the study was conducted with Monsanto scientist.

More pointedly, the study hinged on the assumption that cows receiving the drug produced more milk. But Hansen points out that the FDA specifically disallowed that claim when it studied the drug.

And if reducing methane — rather than saving a drug — was really the issue, scientists instead might advocate putting cows on a diet of grass, instead of in confined feedlots where they are fed a diet rich in corn, soybeans and synthetic hormones.

As the article pointed out, researchers in Australia found that they could cut methane by 50 percent by grazing cows on more forages. But while helping control greenhouse gasses, that finding does nothing for selling drugs.

Samuel Fromartz is the author of Organic Inc. (fromartz.com) and blogs at ChewsWise (chewswise.com).

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