By TERRY D. ETHERTON, Ph.D.
My editorial reply to the Centre Daily Times, State College, PA
(Published in the January 21, 2008 issue of the Centre Daily Times)
Your editorial (Truth is spilled over milk, published on January 3, 2008) overlooked a lot of truths and passed on a few half truths as well.
The biggest overlooked truth is that the controversy over milk labeling has more to do with company profits than with consumer demand. The truth is that milk companies have forced farmers to stop using recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) so that the companies can imply through advertising that their milk is better than some other company’s milk. This disingenuous advertising — “hormone free,” “no artificial hormones,” etc. – is fully aimed at customers who cannot be expected to know all the facts about rbST. There is a bothersome fact that undermines this advertising strategy: All milk contains hormones —the same hormones in the same amounts, irrespective of whether the cow has been supplemented with rbST. This includes organic milk and milk from cows not supplemented with rbST. Even vitamin D, which is used to fortify milk, is a hormone.
The dairy industry’s research that only 30 percent of consumers are aware of any issue regarding hormones and milk. And 70 percent of those who are aware say they do not care about it. However, when people are intentionally led to believe that something may be wrong with their milk, they are more likely to choose another product. A Web site, DHMO.org, demonstrates this natural human response, showing that nearly 80 percent of people want to ban dihydrogen monoxide when they are given specific facts about this colorless substance we call water.
Another overlooked truth in the editorial is the fact that dairy farmers are getting a raw deal. Farmers have been using rbST for nearly 13 years and have seen their costs decrease while their productivity and profits increase. They can produce more milk with fewer cows and less stress on the environment. Now they are told to stop using that product. The milk companies do not pay them for their losses. Rather, some companies actually charge their customers up to $1 per gallon more for this “new” milk, which they imply is safer and better.
If milk companies truly believed in consumer choice, they could offer two packages – from treated and non-treated cows. Of course, they would have to go through the costly process of setting up special handling procedures at their plants and paying a premium to producers who voluntarily give up rbST. They have found it much easier to simply deny hard-working farmers the choice of using an FDA-approved product that improves their families’ lives.
The editorial states accurately that FDA has determined there is no difference in milk from treated and untreated cows. rbST makes cows give more milk, not different milk. However, it implies that milk from treated cows contains more IGF-1. All milk contains IGF-1 in varying amounts, depending on the individual cows. This was true before rbST was introduced and it remains true in all herds, treated or otherwise. The unreported truth is that the level of IGF-1 in human breast milk is substantially higher than anything seen in cow’s milk. On a daily basis, the human body produces 3,000 times the amount of IGF-1 consumed in three 8-ounce glasses of milk.
As a Professor at Penn State University, I have studied rbST for nearly 15 years both before and after FDA’s lengthy review process. Farmers who use the product properly have not seen an increase in mastitis, as the editorial suggests. In fact, they are able to keep their cows in production longer, delaying the inevitable trip to the slaughterhouse.
Truth is hard to represent on a simple label. Just listen to the radio ads for various products where fast-talkers spew out the required caveats at the end of the commercial. Pennsylvania’s Agriculture Secretary Dennis Wolff wisely saw that milk labels were not telling the whole truth, were misleading consumers and were unfairly causing a hardship for dairymen, so he has tried to put a stop to it. And that’s the truth.