Don't Have a Cow

BGH is the story behind the story.
What exactly is it and should we be alarmed?

Weekly Planet Staff Writer

With two reporters fighting Channel 13 in court over whether they were told to lie about the safety of a bovine growth hormone manufactured by Monsanto, the product's safety is on trial once again among consumers.

Is there a real threat, or is it reluctance to embrace a technology that many scientists say the public is just too scientifically illiterate to understand?

The answer is clouded by contradictory scientific opinions, the manufacturer's heavy-handed behavior and our romanticized ideals about farming.

There's a good chance you've already ingested some of Monsanto's synthetic BGH (also called bovine somatotropin, BST) if you've consumed milk or cheese bought at a major grocery store. At least 25 percent of America's dairy farmers use the protein hormone to help their cows produce up to 20 percent more milk.

The FDA stands behind its initial 1993 approval of Prosilac, Monsanto's marketing name for the product, saying it is one of the most scrutinized drugs in the agency's history, animal or human. Monsanto and other pharmaceutical companies did 12 years of research subject to FDA review.

In March, after years of review, a technical committee of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reconfirmed its position that milk with BGH poses no health risk.

Other heavyweights with the power to influence legalization echo that. They include the National Institutes of Health, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the American Cancer Society and, of course, Monsanto.

Despite that, there are vocal skeptics ranging from scientists who say more research is needed to rule out long-term health risks, to critics who warn that even a cow's natural milk is unhealthy to drink. A few of the more public BGH foes include Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream and consumer advocacy groups such as the Consumer's Union, the Pure Food Campaign and Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet.

"We believe it's a poorly conceived, risky solution to a problem that never existed," Ben & Jerry's states on its Web site about the issue.

One of the critics' biggest concerns is that a potential BGH side effect, an udder infection called mastitis, could lead to antibiotics in milk. The fear is that milk drinkers could build up a tolerance to those antibiotics, thereby making it harder to treat their illnesses.

"That's been an ongoing concern even before BST (BGH)," said Brad Stone, FDA spokesman.

Mastitis is a common problem in heavily producing cows. While suffering from it, a cow's milk contains pus and bacteria, making it unfit for consumption.

Monsanto's FDA follow-up studies fail to show a widespread mastitis problem even though the drug's labeling warns of it as potential side-effect.

FDA's Stone says "I'm not aware of any increase (in mastitis) since BST was approved."

Former Wauchula dairy farmer Chuck Knight, however, says he complained to Monsanto about mastitis and hoof problems after he started using the drug. When he called the FDA four months later he found the information hadn't been passed on.

Michael Blackwell, deputy director for the FDA's center of veterinary medicine in Washington, D.C., says it's possible that Knight's report had not been reviewed and wouldn't have shown up when he called.

There are safeguards to prevent antibiotics from entering the milk supply, although they may not be broad enough to catch every type of antibiotic farmers use. The Florida Department of Agriculture spot tests for antibiotics in milk but only checks for the most common of the 30 legal drugs. A federal report stated at least another 50 illegal antibiotics are suspected of being used to treat mastitis.

A possibly more serious human health concern wagered against BGH comes from Samuel Epstein, a professor of occupational and environmental science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. An outspoken critic of what he considers environmental causes of cancer, Epstein has argued that it's not synthetic BGH that's the problem but what even natural BGH creates, an increase in Insulin Growth Factor 1 (IGF1). Epstein draws a correlation between IGF1 count and tumor growth.

The FDA and the World Health Organization provide several arguments as to why such concerns are unfounded.

The FDA says that any IGF1 increase in BGH-enhanced milk is negligible, and the recent U.N./World Health report echoes that. BGH and IGF1 exist naturally in the human body. If you drink 1.5 liters of milk from rBGH-treated cows, you have only gained .8 percent more IGF1 than your stomach usually secretes, according to the U.N./World Health report.

Secondly, they say that because milk drinkers are ingesting IGF1 that it is neutralized by gastric fluids.

Scientists such as Dr. Michael Hanson of the Consumer's Union say those official assurances are misleading.

"What's important is not just the total amounts. IGF1 is incredibly active at low concentrations," Hanson says. "More and more evidence shows IGF1 is a problem compound. Increasing levels is not good a idea."

The amount of naturally occurring BGH and IGF1 in milk varies depending on a cow's lactation cycle, her diet and age. Such variables make it difficult to test whether milk was genetically enhanced.

"There is virtually no difference in milk from treated and untreated cows. In fact, it's not possible using current scientific techniques to tell them apart," said David Kessler, FDA Commissioner when the hormone was approved in 1993.

That assertion gave way to an aggressive business maneuver by Monsanto that may have been enough in itself to turn a milk glutton into a vegan.

The biotechnology giant used the fact that there's no way to distinguish BGH-enhanced milk as a way to prevent non-users from labeling their milk, claiming there is no way to verify it.

Gary Barton, Monsanto's spokesman, denied it. "There's a total misperception that we're against labeling," he said.

More precisely, it's what the labels often don't say that rattles Monsanto. "No BGH-added" by itself on a milk carton is enough to send the company into a tizzy of threats and lawsuits.

"You can't just stick a 'no BGH-added' on your label, because it implies that it's better," Barton said.

Claiming sensitivity to the fact that many consumers might be turned off by biogenetically enhanced milk and lose an important source of calcium in their diets, the FDA recommended that farmers labeling non-BGH-enhanced milk add the phrase: "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows."

Monsanto has used the recommendation to sue two dairies for not including that phrase on their labeling.

Barton spins it: "It (the lawsuits) wasn't over whether they labeled the milk. It dealt with how they promoted the milk. We support the FDA's policy on labeling."

Of course. The recommended FDA labeling was written by a lawyer who worked for Monsanto before and after working for the FDA. In fact, his law firm handled Monsanto's lawsuits against the two dairies.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) and Rep. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vermont) have accused Monsanto of brandishing the FDA-recommended wording to scare dairies from labeling.

"The problem is when a big corporation comes after a small dairy, the cost of litigation can destroy that small dairy," Feingold told the Milwaukee Journal. "If Monsanto can use bogus lawsuits to prevent dairies from voluntary labeling, the result will be a denial of a consumer's right to know."

And the company's policing continues to retailers who advertised selling rBST-free milk. The company admitted to the St. Louis Post Dispatch in February 1994 that it mailed 2,000 letters to retailers in Wisconsin and Illinois reminding them of the recommended federal guidelines for labeling.

Monsanto has also been guarded with its multimillion-dollar research. It gave two British scientists, Dr. Eric Millstone and Dr. Eric Bruner, permission to study its raw data on rBGH in a classroom. But when they wanted to print their conclusions showing that mastitis increased by 19 percent in cows using rBGH, Monsanto said no way. The company previously concluded from the data that rBGH effects were negligible.

"Until those data are in the public domain, some important questions about the effects of BST on animal health remain unresolved," the two scientists wrote in a Nature magazine commentary.

There has also been a line of employment between Monsanto and the FDA, causing critics to doubt the thoroughness of the FDA's review. The lawyer who wrote the labeling guidelines wasn't the only one to cross over. A formal complaint filed by three congressmen questioned the ethics of three other FDA employees who previously worked for Monsanto on some aspect of rBGH. While working for the FDA, the employees had some contact with the rBGH issue. However, a General Accounting Office investigation found no wrongdoing.

Stone said it's only natural that the FDA and pharmaceutical companies share the same labor pool because the employees need similar skills. He also scoffs at allegations that the FDA went light on Monsanto.

"Any notion that BST got any easy treatment is sort of hard to fathom if you look at the history," Stone says. "The approval process was rigorous and public. You also have to look at the fact that David Kessler was commissioner then. He was criticized on a number of accounts, but never for being easy on the industry."

Critics also complain that the FDA relied on Monsanto's research in determining the drug's safety, and that those studies focused on cows' health, not humans who drink milk.

But if there's a problem with relying on the Monsanto's studies, it's indicative of a systemic one, for the FDA relies on manufacturer's studies for every product it approves. It is the capitalistic system in which we live; the manufacturer pays for the research, not taxpayers.

As for claims that human risks weren't thoroughly considered, Stone says that's just not true and points to an FDA article published in Science magazine, citing more than 120 tests on rats that were used to show a negligible impact on human health.

Critics claim that those tests only took place over 45 days and that's not long enough to know of the long-term affects it may have on humans.

Blackwell, who was a FDA researcher prior to his current post, said that even if tests only lasted 45 days, it was enough. He noted that the FDA can only test for what potential risks may be expected, any thing more exceeds the agency's mandate.

"We try to take the best science available, and look at what potential harm there is in the product," he said. "None of us wants to go home at the end of the day to learn we made a decision that hurt somebody."

But for many, all assurances don't lesson the gut feeling that adding something artificial to milk isn't right, if for no other reason than out of principle. Studies have shown that 80 percent of Americans have concerns about drinking genetically enhanced milk.

And perhaps Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, the Vermont guys who brought the world Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey, have captured this sentiment best.

"As we see it, genetically engineered bovine growth hormone is a step in the wrong direction toward a synthetic, chemically intensive factory-produced food supply."

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Recombinant (meaning genetically manipulated) Bovine Growth Hormone, is also known as bovine somatotropin. Using DNA technology, scientists were able to create it by harvesting a cow's natural BGH from killed bacteria and purifying it in a process similar to the making of human insulin.
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During the hot summer months, Florida dairies don't produce enough milk to support the state's population. An estimated 20 percent of Florida's milk comes from Georgia.
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Today there are about 250 dairies in Florida compared to 328 in 1992.
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During the 1950s, a group of dwarf children were given doses of BGH in hopes it would promote growth. It had no effects.

1999 Weekly Planet, Tampa Florida
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