ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

Got (rBGH) Milk? You May Not Know in Ohio

The Organic Trade Association last month filed suit against a new milk labeling rule in Ohio that bans statements about production methods, such as "no artificial hormones."

This suit was the latest bid to block the lobbying by Monsanto Corp. advocates, who are seeking to limit milk labels state-by-state. The International Dairy Foods Association filed suit too.

(Update) On Friday, the OTA filed a motion for summary judgment in the case. The Ohio Department of Agriculture has until August 15 to file its opposition and the OTA could then file a reply by August 29. The IDFA filed a similar motion.

If Ohio is successful, the label limitations would prevent consumers from choosing milk that is produced without synthetic growth hormones. Monsanto argues that there is no difference between milk produced with the added growth hormones and milk without it. But consumers advocates — and consumers themselves — take a different view. They want choice.

A similar attempt by Pennsylvania to limit the wording of milk labels was overturned by the governor in January, after a letter writing campaign by consumers and advocacy groups.

Indiana also considered similar legislation, but it failed to get traction in the state legislature. A bill in Missouri failed to pass. Kansas considered a law but it didn’t make it through the legislature, nor did an attempt in Vermont. A similar campaign in New Jersey has stalled.

Now, Kansas is revisiting the issue and Utah is considering rules similar to Ohio's.

It's all part of a concerted lobbying effort to save synthetic bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST), the milk-boosting genetically engineered drug Monsanto sells under the brand name Posilac. Although the hormone was approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration in 1993, it has been on a downward spiral as consumers, retailers, milk processors and dairy farmers avoid it.

In March, Walmart said all of its store-branded milk would come from cows not treated with rBGH. Kraft is introducing an rBGH-free line of cheese. Dean Foods, the largest milk processor in the nation, is moving away from the synthetic hormone. Kroger has banned the hormone from its store brand milk, as has Safeway.

The hormone has been outlawed in the European Union, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Like all genetically modified food, it is banned in organic agriculture.

Aside from the impact on animal health, such as mastitis (an udder infection) consumer advocates are concerned that the synthetic hormone increases levels of IGF-1, a hormone that in some studies has been linked to increased breast and prostate cancer risk. Monsanto and the FDA say the hormone is safe.

In the US, the American Nurses Association recently voted to help "eliminate the use or rBGH in the US by appealing to those who make purchasing decisions within the institutions where we work."

So if nurses are so concerned, why are states trying to ban a label that would give consumers a way to avoid milk produced with the hormones?

"This is something the Monsanto lobby must do because the market is starting to work against the product," Michael Hansen, a staff scientist at Consumers Union, said.

Last year, Monsanto appealed to the FDA to review the approved label wording for rBGH that allows for  claims, such as "produced without synthetic hormones." Monsanto also sought action from the Federal Trade Commission to block advertising of milk produced without rBGH.

The FDA declined to act, noting that it would only intervene in cases where fraudulent claims — as opposed to product descriptions — were made on the milk label. The FTC, in dismissing Monsanto's complaint, also found no instance where a national company made false claims.

The Monsanto lobby also has a research wing. A recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the drug can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since the drug boosts milk production in cows. The study argued that if fewer cows produced the same amount of milk, then emissions would be reduced.  Dairy cows produce about 20 percent of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

But an article in Scientific American poured cold water on those environmentally-friendly claims, pointing out an apparent conflict of interest because the study was conducted with Monsanto scientist.

More pointedly, the study hinged on the assumption that cows receiving the drug produced more milk for a given level of feed. But Hansen points out that the FDA specifically disallowed that claim when it studied the drug.

And if reducing methane were really the issue, scientists instead might advocate taking cows out of confined feedlots, where they are fed a methane-producing diet of corn and soybeans and injected with synthetic hormones. As the article pointed out, researchers in Australia found that grazing cows on grass could cut methane emissions by 50 percent. But that finding does nothing for drug sales -- or lobbying campaigns.

- Samuel Fromartz

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Image source: Discovery Education's Clip Art