Sorting through the Issues of Organic Milk
In 1993 the US dairy industry changed dramatically. That year the
FDA approved the use of a genetically-engineered form of bST, sparking
a controversy that has persisted over the last thirteen years, leading
to law suits and disputes over public health and safety. Many organically-minded
consumers switched over to “hormone-free milk,” only to later learn
that there was no such thing. What is rbST anyway, and how does it affect
cows? The intent of this article is to sort through the issues concerning
rbST, so that you can make an informed decision about the milk you buy.
Somatotropin (bST) is the hormone which stimulates milk production
and is naturally produced in a cow’s pituitary gland. In the 1950s scientists
first developed a recombinant form of this hormone, hoping to use it
to treat children suffering with dwarfism. The injections had no effect
whatsoever on the children, and the experiment was deemed a failure.
Scientists concluded that some hormones were species-specific, meaning
they only affect members of their own species. In the 1980s scientists
had a new use for the synthetic hormone—inject cows with it to stimulate
greater milk production. Studies began to see if such a theory would
The use of rbST (which is also called rbGH, Posil, or Bovine Growth
Hormone) is often misunderstood. Misinformed individuals think that
farmers who use the synthetic hormone use it 100% of the time with their
entire herd. This is simply not true. rbST is used in synch with a cow’s
natural lactation cycle. Soon after a cow gives birth she reaches her
peak milk production—a state called freshening. Sometime thereafter,
her production steadily declines until she goes dry. The average cow
produces milk 306 days out of the year. rbST is used toward the end
of the freshening stage, to prolong higher milk yields later into the
cycle. If a cow is already at peak production, rbST will not yield more
milk. Neither does the hormone affect all cows equally. While the hormone
boosts production in the average cow by 10-15% per year, some cows may
not be affected at all. Dairy farmers therefore use the hormone on about
a third of the herd at a time.
In 1993, amid a storm of controversy, the FDA released its conclusions
regarding the use of rbST in dairy cows. None of the studies performed
detected any significant difference in the milk of cows which had been
treated with the synthetic hormone versus those who had not. Even if
the hormone was passed in higher concentrations in the milk, which it
wasn’t, the FDA asserted that rbST would have no affect on humans. Therefore,
the FDA did not require farmers using rbST to label their products.
When some organic farmers voluntarily labeled their milk as “hormone-free”
or “bST-free,” the FDA sued, saying that all milk contained natural
hormones, and that the voluntary labels misled the public into thinking
organic milk was healthier. Appropriate wording was finally agreed upon,
and organic dairy farmers now inform their consumers that products have
been made using milk from cows not treated with rbST. As a result of
the law suit, organic farmers must also state that the FDA has found
no difference in the milk produced by treated and untreated cows.
Their findings would have packed more power, had not three voices joined
the resistance. Richard Burroughs, who played a lead role in the FDA
review process, was shocked at how few tests the agency was running.
When his questions threatened to slow down the approval process in the
late 1980s he was fired. Alexander Apostolou was also pressured to leave
the agency when he publicly stated that “sound scientific procedures
for evaluating human food safety of veterinary drugs have been disregarded.”
It should be mentioned that neither Burroughs nor Apostolou objected
outright to the drug, but advocated more thorough testing. Their concerns
were not appreciated. They were joined by Joseph Settepani, a chemist
in charge of quality control for veterinary drug approvals. After testifying
at a public hearing that a systematic breakdown in testing had occurred,
Settepani was stripped of his duties as a supervisor and sent to work
in a small experimental farm. During this time numerous letters were
sent by FDA workers expressing their concerns about the inadequate testing,
choosing to remain anonymous because they were afraid of retribution.
Other countries, experiencing the same backlash, made different choices.
To date, Canada, Europe, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand have barred
the use of rbST in their dairy cows. While their decision may be pitted
more in politics than in human safety, (increasing the milk supply would
drive down the price, forcing taxpayers to spend more money on farmer
subsidies), at least two Canadian studies have yielded questionable
results. In the first, it was suggested there may be a very rare sensitivity
to food products from rbST-treated cattle. A subsequent study in 1998
found increased risks in animal safety. Treated cattle were 25% more
likely to suffer from mastitis, 18% more likely to be infertile, and
50% more likely to go lame.
Whether or not milk from rbST-treated cows is really any different,
the controversy has resulted in a steady market for organic dairy farmers.
Since 1993, the demand for organic milk has increased 500%, and at present,
the demand is greater than the supply. While the FDA is unlikely to
back down, it appears dairy farmers are responding to their market.
Last week on the shelves of the dairy case I noticed traditional farmers
are now offering their own milk products—produced by cows untreated
About the Author
Francesca Black works in marketing at Organic Items http://www.organic-items.com
and Pilates Shop http://www.pilates-shop.net
leading portals for organic products and natural excercise.