THERE'S NO GUARANTEE
Published: Saturday, April 4, 1998
FT. LAUDERDALE SUN-SENTINEL
By LARRY LEBOWITZ Staff Writer
Floridians are drinking milk produced from cows receiving an FDA-approved but controversial hormone—even though several major supermarket chains asked dairy farmers to refrain from using it four years ago.
In response to widespread consumer fears in early 1994, Publix, Albertsons and the Fleming Foods wholesale distributor said they would ask milk suppliers not to use bovine growth hormone (BGH) until it gained widespread public acceptance.
Consumer advocates and public-health advocates stoked fears by pointing out that BGH, sometimes called Bovine Somatropin or BST, had failed to receive government approvals in Canada, New Zealand and the 15 nations in the European Union. The reason: conflicting reports about the hormone's ability to promote the growth of cancerous tumors.
The outcry quickly died down in Florida, and some dairy farmers started injecting the best-producing cows in their herds with the hormone, which increases milk production from 10 percent to 25 percent.
The issue arose this week when two former Tampa TV reporters filed a lawsuit alleging that their station killed their investigation of BGH under industry pressure. The station denies that industry pressure forced the cancellation of the story.
Today, the supermarkets acknowledge that the milk you drink cannot be classified as hormone-free, even though they think the growth-accelerants pose no health risk.
"It would be misleading to our customers and put our company at risk of violating [federal laws) to label, advertise or certify that Publix milk is 100 percent from cows not treated with BST," Publix spokeswoman Jennifer Bush said in Lakeland.
Albertsons spokeswoman Jenny Enochson said the chain, which has 106 supermarkets in Florida, still prefers that its suppliers provide hormone-free milk, but acknowledges that Albertsons has little control over the dairies.
Winn-Dixie, the one major Florida chain that didn't bow to public pressure in 1994, said it buys milk containing BGH as long as it meets U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations.
None of the chains can say with certainty when Florida dairies started ignoring the supermarkets' request. But several dairy farmers, milk cooperative general managers and Cooperative Extension agents said they thought it became regular practice on the most efficient dairies shortly after receiving FDA approval.
The use of growth hormones has been the subject of an international political and public relations debate for more than a decade.
The fight pits marketer Monsanto, the federal government and dairy farmers on one side against biotechnology opponents, consumer groups and some wary biologists on the other.
The FDA approved commercial use of BGH, marketed by Monsanto under the trade name Posilac, in November 1993. Congress declared a three-month moratorium as nationwide protests ensued, with anti-biotechnology and consumer groups openly dumping milk in the streets.
BGH was also pronounced safe by the American Medical Association, the National Institutes of Health and a joint committee of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and its World Health Organization.
BGH leads to significantly increased levels of another hormone called insulin-like growth factor-I or IGF-1 in milk. IGF-1 is a powerful tumor growth promoter, said Michael Hansen, a biologist with Consumer Policy Institute in Yonkers, N.Y. Monsanto and several federal government reports vehemently deny that there is any evidence that human consumption of IGF-1 in milk will promote colon cancer, rectal cancer or breast cancer in humans.
Gary Barton, a Monsanto spokesman who specializes in the issue, said many of the countries that don't currently allow the sale of Posilac have approved its use, but enacted moratoriums simply to quell public hysteria.
Another rhetorical battle is waged over a 1992 Government Accounting Office report concluding that cows treated with the hormones have a higher incidence of an udder inflammation known as mastitis. Health and consumer advocates argue that treating mastitis with antibiotics puts humans at risk of drinking milk containing those chemicals.
Armed with a March 5 report from the U.N. committee, Barton said there is no evidence of higher rates of mastitis, or any proof of higher rates of antibiotics in milk produced by cows receiving BGH injections. Consumer advocates and biologists have also criticized the U.N. study's methodology.
"It's incredulous that these stories are still out there after four years of use on the market," Barton said. "These critics continue to spread these stories. They ignore the findings of every scientific organization out there and continue to spout these anecdotal stories. They're incorrect."
Truth in labeling
Anti-biotechnology and consumer groups continued pushing states to enact mandatory truth-in-labeling laws requiring milk producers to disclose the use of hormone injections.
Most of those laws have failed. Health and consumer advocates say Monsanto often is the main company lobbying against such laws.
Barton said the company supports the free market: If dairies choose to declare that they are hormone-free, they should be allowed to say so on their milk. But conversely, the company doesn't think dairy farmers should be forced to disclose use of a substance the FDA has declared safe.
"To say that they support labeling is pretty disingenuous," Hansen said. "Wherever there have been voluntary or mandatory labeling laws, they've testified against every single bill."
The company has good reason to fight truth-in-labeling laws, Hansen said. Industry- and government-sponsored surveys have indicated that a majority of consumers support labeling so they can make an informed decision about hormone-enhanced milk.
No push in Florida
In Florida, where agricultural interests have historically maintained a stronghold in Tallahassee, no one has even presented a milk truth-in-labeling bill. Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford doesn't support such regulation.
"The USDA says it's a safe product. The FDA says it's a safe product. You can't outlaw something that the federal government approves,"
Crawford spokesman Terry McElroy said. "Even if we did, there's no way to test for it. You can't tell the synthetically produced hormones from the naturally produced ones."
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