Got rBGH?

While celebrities and the USDA tout milk's benefits, politics and a genetically engineered growth hormone raise doubts

| August 07, 2002
The milk bottling facility at Maple View Farm
The milk bottling facility at Maple View Farm
- Alex Maness
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Milk, they say, is an important source of calcium that helps kids grow up big and strong. Milk is said to contain vital nutrients and to help prevent osteoporosis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its food dietary guidelines, says that everyone should get 2-3 servings of dairy every day. Milk is advocated by various agencies of the U.S. government, legions of physicians, and the $180 million annual advertising budget of the dairy industry itself. Britney Spears, Carson Daly, Neve Campbell, Spike Lee, and other fine celebrities have endorsed milk, decorating thousands of billboards with their mustachioed mugs.

And, indeed, America has a love affair with milk. The average person living in the United States consumes over 600 pounds of dairy products every year, including about 420 pounds of fluid milk and cream, 70 pounds of various milk-based fats and oils, 30 pounds of cheese, and 17 pounds of ice cream. In aggregate, U.S. dairy farmers produce 163 billion pounds of milk and milk products a year.

But what if Britney and Spike were lying to us? What if milk doesn't do a body good? Instead, what if milk is a major contributor to breast cancer, heart disease, asthma, diabetes and more? What if the U.S. government and the dairy industry are colluding to hide the ill effects of dairy consumption?

According to Amy Lanou, the nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, "Besides prostate cancer, milk has been linked to asthma, anemia, allergies, juvenile-onset diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and ovarian and breast cancer."

Why then, is milk still widely regarded as wholesome?

The Food Pyramid Scheme
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to its mission statement, is charged with "enhancing the quality of life for the American people by supporting the production of agriculture." Created by the Lincoln administration in 1862, today's USDA has the dual responsibility of assisting dairy farmers while promoting healthy dietary choices for Americans. Not surprisingly, this creates a conflict of interest that puts at risk the objectivity of government farm policy and the health of all dairy-consuming Americans.

In December 1999, the PCRM filed suit against the USDA, claiming the department unfairly promotes the special interests of the meat and dairy industries through its official dietary guidelines and the Food Pyramid. Six of the 11 members assigned to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee were demonstrated to have financial ties to meat, dairy and egg interests. Prior to the suit, which the PCRM won in December 2000, the USDA had refused to disclose such conflicts of interest to the general public.

The USDA's advisory committees have been dominated by the agriculture industry since the early 1950s, when the department devised the Four Food Groups, including milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals. Over the years, these dietary guidelines have consistently reflected the industry's push for greater consumption of both meat and dairy, despite the testimony of numerous physicians' groups and watchdog organizations criticizing the Food Pyramid as biased and unhealthful.

The USDA's counter-argument? The food dietary guidelines must be reality-based, says the USDA, arguing that what people should really be eating is moot because it doesn't fit with the American lifestyle. Apparently, the USDA thinks it's unrealistic to promote healthy dietary guidelines to the increasingly obese American public, despite the fact that such guidelines are understood by just about everyone to be goals, not de facto rules. In other words, the USDA doesn't even think it's reasonable to aspire to what constitutes a healthy diet.

Government Cheese
With the recent passage of the Farm Bill on May 13, dairy farmers and processors will receive $2 billion more in subsidies over the next three and a half years, largely realized through price supports that inflate costs for consumers. Dairy subsidies are a carryover from the Depression era, when survival of small dairy farmers was considered essential to maintaining a national food supply.

Today, a large chunk of that additional $2 billion in subsidies is going to large dairy farms in 12 Northeastern states. Further, as consolidation continues to occur in the dairy industry, federal subsidies are going to an increasingly small number of highly concentrated dairy operations, hanging small farmers out to dry and encouraging the demise of family farms. This increase in large industrial farms bodes ill for both cows and humans.

Another assertion of the suit brought by the PCRM against the USDA is that the status of milk as a staple in school lunch programs unfairly discriminates against non-whites who have a high incidence of lactose intolerance. In total, there are an estimated 50 million lactose intolerant adults in the United States, including 15 percent of the white population, 70 percent of the black population, and 80 to 97 percent of Asian Americans, Native Americans and Jews of European descent. These 50 million people suffer from a variety of digestive symptoms that result from consuming milk and other dairy products, including gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and indigestion.

Currently, the USDA requires that every public school in the country serve milk. There's even a push by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) to offer financial incentives to schools that install milk vending machines (after California, New York is the second largest dairy-producing state). Further, students cannot get free or subsidized alternatives to milk, such as juice or soy milk, without a note from their physician, so for 70 percent of African-American kids in public schools, a negative response to lactose intake is practically mandated by the U.S. government. Same goes for 90 percent of Asian- American students and 74 percent of Native American students.

The PCRM asserts that huge dairy subsidies and broad-based promotion of milk by the government's school lunch program is a form of economic racism that isolates minorities and encourages them to consume something they're disproportionately intolerant of or allergic to.

Monsanto's Moo Juice
In 1990, the Monsanto Company commissioned scientists to inject a bunch of laboratory rats with an early variant of recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST), also known as Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). The 90-day study demonstrated that the genetically engineered rBGH was linked to development of prostate and thyroid cancer in the rats.

Monsanto was about to seek approval for Posilac, the company's commercialized form of rBGH, which increases cows' milk production by an estimated 15-25 percent. The study linking rBGH to cancer was submitted to the FDA, but Posilac was still approved in 1994. With fingers pointing in both directions, those with opinions argue about who had a bigger part in the cover-up--Monsanto or the FDA.

The results of the study, in fact, were not made available to the public until 1998, when a group of Canadian scientists obtained the full documentation and completed an independent analysis of the results. Among other instances of neglect, the documents showed that the FDA had never reviewed Monsanto's original studies (on which the approval for Posilac had been based), so in the end the question of whether the report had contained all of the original data was moot.

The FDA's complicity continued; Michael Taylor, a Monsanto lawyer for many years, left in 1976 to become a staff lawyer for the FDA. In 1991, he was promoted to the office of FDA's deputy commissioner, serving in that capacity until 1994. The administration approved rBGH in 1993.

While at the FDA, Taylor also oversaw adoption of the policy that limited the kind of labeling dairies that did not use rBGH could put on their milk. That was considered by most to be a major victory for Monsanto, and 10 days after Taylor's policy was finalized, his old law firm, still representing Monsanto, filed suit against two dairy farms that had labeled their milk rBGH-free.

Taylor says he recused himself from the process that led to FDA approval of Posilac because of the conflict of interest. But he confirmed in an interview that, as the deputy commissioner in charge of policy, he was responsible for overseeing development of the standards that have kept organic dairies and others that don't use rBGH from saying so on their labels.

The reason: Since the FDA determined that rBGH was safe, he says, it wasn't proper to allow labeling that suggested it wasn't. "Labeling should not only be truthful, it should not be misleading," he says.

But Taylor knows his role has raised eyebrows. "This is a legitimate question and a challenge any time a person leaves the private sector and goes into government to do public service," he says.

As soon as the GAO released a report covering all of this, Taylor left the FDA to work for the USDA as the administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a position he held from 1994 to 1996. There, he says, he oversaw new standards for slaughterhouses after the E. coli bacteria deaths of children who'd eaten tainted meat served at Jack in the Box restaurants. Then, after holding positions at both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Taylor then went back to working for Monsanto, this time directly, as the corporation's vice president of public policy.

Michael Taylor wasn't the only government employee with an obvious conflict of interest. At the same time that Taylor left Monsanto for the FDA, Dr. Margaret Miller, once Monsanto's top scientist, was also hired by the FDA to review her own scientific research conducted during her tenure at Monsanto. In her role as FDA scientist, Miller made the official decision to increase the amount of permissible antibiotic residues in milk by a hundred-fold, in part to counter the increase of mastitis (inflammation of the udders) in cows due to overuse of artificial growth hormones.

These incestuous relationships between industry and the U.S. government are the norm rather than the exception. Decisions at the FDA are made primarily by advisory boards comprised of scientists and executives from the dairy and meat industries, with a few university academics thrown in for good measure.

rBGH and the Damage Done
Girls in the United States are beginning to menstruate at younger and younger ages. According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, some girls are now experiencing the effects of puberty as young as three years of age. Here, perhaps, is a part of the reason why: Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) is a naturally occurring hormone produced by milk cows. Closely resembling the natural growth hormones in human children, the presence of BGH in milk has been shown to significantly elevate hormone levels in people, creating a host of growth problems.

But the most significant health issue raised by rBGH is the fact that rBGH-injected cows produce milk with exceedingly high levels of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), a cancer promoter that occurs naturally in the human bloodstream at levels that generally do not result in tumors. Fifty years ago, the incidence of breast cancer risk among U.S. women was one in 20, a percentage that has grown to one in eight women as of 2001.

Monsanto and the FDA refuse to acknowledge recent research directly linking elevated levels of IGF-1 to increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. But that was a key reason cited by the European Union in banning the sale in Europe of milk from cows that have received rBGH.

The increased milk production spurred by dosing cows with Monsanto's Posilac also causes them to suffer from mastitis, a bacterial infection of the udder, and widespread occurrences of cystic ovaries and disorders of the uterus. In addition to harming the cows, these conditions may produce discharges that are passed to consumers along with the milk.

Treating mastitis requires the increased use of antibiotics by dairy farmers, and some of that makes it into the milk supply. Another reason cited by the EU in banning the sale of rBGH milk was concern about the build-up of resistance in humans to antibiotics because of their increased presence in milk.

According to Monsanto, over a quarter of U.S. milk cows are now in herds supplemented with Posilac. The vast majority of the country's 1,500 dairy companies mix rBGH milk with non-rBGH milk during processing to such an extent that it's in an estimated 80-90 percent of the U.S. dairy supply.

Since 1994, every industrialized country in the world except the United States--including Canada, Japan, and all 15 nations of the European Union--has banned rBGH milk. The United Nations Food Standards Body refuses to certify that rBGH is safe. Even the WTO, or more specifically its food standards body, the Codex Alimentarius, has refused to endorse Monsanto's claim that rBGH is safe for use in the dairy supply. In the face of facts and the majority opinion of the global political and scientific community, Monsanto and the United States continue to endorse rBGH milk for general consumption, at the same time scratching their heads about increases in breast cancer deaths and the continually declining age of puberty for girls.

What About the Cash Cows?
OK, so milk can be bad for people. But what of the effect on cows producing that milk? The life expectancy of the average cow in natural conditions is about 25-30 years; on the typical factory farm, where well over half of U.S. milk cows reside, they live only four to five years.

It turns out that keeping dairy cows constantly pregnant--the only way they will prodzzuce milk--creates (surprise!) baby calves. The veal industry was created because the dairy industry didn't know what to do with male calves that otherwise had no economic value to dairy farmers. The process is cruel from start to finish: The cows are artificially impregnated by being bound to what the industry terms a "rape rack," then injected with a series of bull semen, hormones, and antibiotics; veal calves are then immobilized in small wooden crates so that they can't move around, therefore ensuring the tenderness of their flesh when slaughtered. Over a million veal calves were slaughtered in the United States in 2001.

In the end, it boils down to a familiar story: Big business and the U.S. government joining forces to mislead the American consumer. The USDA tells us to drink more milk while subsidizing large dairy farms and federally mandating dairy consumption for schoolchildren. The government spends billions to buy unused milk and dairy products, one of the biggest forms of subsidies, while the industry spends almost $200 million every year promoting dairy consumption. Meanwhile, the FDA and Monsanto conspire to pollute the dairy supply with a genetically engineered hormone banned in much of the rest of the world.

So while the American public might fairly answer the dairy industry's ubiquitous question of whether it "Got Milk?" with a resounding, mustachioed "Yes," the better question might be whether people have been misled--and endangered--in the process. EndBlock

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- Alex Maness
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- Alex Maness
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- Alex Maness

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