Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Milky Decision--With or Without Growth Hormones

by Allisa Griffith

There may be one more choice to make when picking up milk from the supermarket. Besides the normal fat-free, skim, 1%, 2%, or whole milk dilemma, consumers in Ohio may now have to decide to purchase milk with rBST or no rBST.

What is RBST?
RBST is an acronym for Recombinant bovine somatotropin or recombinant bovine growth hormone. Its is a natural hormone that can be found in the pituitary glands of all cows. Many commercial dairies inject the hormone into cows in order to increase milk production. Both sources of rBST (produced by the cow and injected as a supplement) are carried to the liver of the cow via the blood stream.

Some studies have found that rBST in the liver stimulates this organ to produce insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a protein hormone that plays an important role in helping regulate the conversion of dietary nutrients into milk. In 1999, the FDA reported that milk from cows treated with rBST was safe to drink. Researchers found that use of rBST in dairy cows does not increase the levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) in their milk. More IFG-1 is found in human milk than in even the RBST-supplemented cows. The FDA also ruled that for all practical purposes there is no difference between milk from rBST-supplemented cows and unsupplemented cows. Commissioners said there are no differences in nutrient content (i.e., fat, protein, calcium, vitamins, etc.) or sensory characteristics (flavor, color, etc.). However, for some people, the FDA's findings are not enough.

The Controversy
The use of rBST in dairy cows has been controversial since the 1980s. Biotechnology opponents have deemed the hormone untested and harmful and have aggressively opposed it. Supporters of the use of the hormone, especially farmers, have cited both environmental and economical reasons. They say that more milk produced will help keep the costs low and less cow waste will help the environment substantially. The hormone reportedly helps cows produce up to an extra gallon of milk a day. The Akron-Beacon Journal reported that farmers have stepped forward to protest any moves to ban the hormone or label milk with the hormone, which they say will lower production, eat into their profits and increase retail milk prices.

A New Label
As a result of the controversy, dairies that produce milk products without the use of rBST have begun indicating this on their labels. This is lawful, but the FDA discourages it -- citing customer confusion. However, for those who insist the omission is misleading, the FDA recommends that the company also put information on the label to inform the consumer that "no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated cows and non-rBST-treated cows". The FDA says that this will put the statement "from cows not treated with rBST" in proper perspective so it is not a cause for alarm.

Some consumers have complained that milk with the RBST-free label is unfairly higher in price at some stores. The Coshocton Tribune reported that an American Farm Bureau Federation study found that in late 2007, one-half gallon of whole milk in the United States sold for $2.38. rbST-free milk was priced at $3.06 and organic milk was $3.47.

Growing Apart
Major companies are committing not to use milk supplied from rBST-injected cows. The Cincinnatti Enquirer reported that Dairy Marketing Services and Dairy Farmers of America have told farmers that they must sign an affidavit promising not to use the hormone or it won't pick up their milk; and some consumers are shying away from the hormone-injected milk. The Environmental News Network reported that restaurants and stores across the country such as Chipotle, Publix and Dean Foods are turning to rBST-free milk products. The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association also reported that Kroger and Starbucks will complete the transition of all its store-brand milk to a certified rBST-free supply by February 2008.

So what about Ohio?
The Ohio Department of Agriculture's Dairy Labeling Advisory Committee has yet to determine whether or not to allow labeling on milk in Ohio. Monsanto, the chemical giant that introduced the artificial growth hormone to the market in 1994, is discouraging the use of labels. However, a group of about 70 farmers, food makers, retailers, consumers, advocates and others are supporting it. Ohio State University researchers recently found that approximately fifty-nine percent of Ohioans were concerned about consuming milk from cows injected with rBST. But, is there any real cause for concern? Some say yes, the FDA says no. It's your choice.

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