rbST-Certified Free Milk – A Story of Smoke and Mirrors

Terry Etherton

The Boston Globe ran a story on Sept. 25th on the decision by H.P. Hood and Dean Foods to switch New England milk processing plants to “rbST-free” milk. In this story, a spokesperson for Dean Foods said, “Even though conventional milk is completely safe and POSILAC (recombinant bovine somatotropin; rbST) is completely safe, some people don’t feel comfortable with it.” This is the reason given for labeling milk as not coming from cows supplemented with rbST–a meaningless distinction, because all milk contains the same hormones in the same amounts, irrespective of whether they have been supplemented with rbST.

There’s little doubt that consumers who have no understanding are easily gulled by such labels. Evidence of this is in a story in the October 1st issue of St. Louis Post Dispatch, which quotes a mother shopping at a Trader Joe’s for her family as she “picked up a package of string cheese in the dairy section, and noted that it doesn’t contain BST, a bovine hormone.”

“I’m not sure what it is, but I think it’s something bad,” she said. “I’m pretty certain it’s a hormone, and I try to buy milk that also doesn’t have hormones in it. I’m not one of those people where everything has to be organic. But with my child, I feel like I should get her off on the right food; you know, without pesticides and hormones.” This illustrates the remarkable lack of scientific understanding that exists in the general public. There are thousands of hormones circulating in the blood of all animals and humans. Without these we would not survive. Moreover, any technology used that impacts the food chain, like rbST, has been subject to intense regulatory review by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). POSILAC has been one of the most rigorously reviewed technologies that have been evaluated and approved by FDA. Simply put, the use of POSILAC does not pose any increased health concerns for consumers or cows!

In a nutshell, some processors are saying they are perfectly willing to exploit consumer ignorance and suspicion that some milk might be safer or healthier than other milk. Where does this lead the milk industry? I think it leads down the road of deception.

“If the future of our industry is based on marketing tactics that try to sway consumers with ‘good milk’ versus ‘bad milk’ messages, we are all in trouble,” Kevin Holloway, President of Monsanto Dairy, told a group of dairy producers at a September 13th meeting in Washington D.C.

Mr. Holloway has a business to run. That business sells POSILAC to U.S. dairy farmers who have used it ever since FDA approved it 13 years ago, so he’s expected to say something along these lines.

But on October 1st, two letters to the editor of the Boston Globe indicate that Holloway may be the Cassandra of the dairy industry. Under the headline “Hold the growth hormones–in fact, hold the milk,” the Globe published the two letters.

One was from the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. They said FDA was wrong and rbST made milk dangerous to the public. They applauded Dean Foods and H.P. Hood for the decision to ban dairy farmers from choosing to use this tool. These activist physicians said it caused “health risks to humans,” though they could cite no evidence of this.

The second letter to the editor was from the staff dietitian for Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. She said that all milk contains hormones, which is very true not only of milk, but of all food. However, her recommendation was that everyone avoid all milk because “it may boost prostate and ovarian cancer growth.” This illustrates the magnitude of scientific misinformation that opponents of rbST use.

So there you have it. Marketing tactics that willingly exploit ignorance with “good milk v. bad milk” messages followed immediately and simultaneously by credible-sounding claims that some milk is indeed bad for you and that all milk is bad for you.

Both letters are written by parties with motives that are hostile toward the truth about the health benefits of all milk, including milk from cows supplemented with rbST. There is no evidence that milk causes people to have cancer. The reality I have observed is that it is easy to scare the public in a 30-second media message. It is impossible to give them a sound scientific understanding about the benefits of biotechnology in the barnyard in 30 seconds.

One can ask, who wins? Junk science by a knockout. How can this happen? When the dairy industry enters the ring with a towel over its head and stumbles aimlessly toward what it thinks is an easy opportunity to please what it thinks is a roaring crowd of consumers, but is really just a few anti-milk hecklers in the peanut gallery.

What is the lesson here? Unfortunately, it is there are those who seek to profit from lies that others tell twice–once to the world and once to themselves.

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