Scientists Challenge Industry In Escalating rbST Label Row

Posted on Truth About Trade & Technology
April 2, 2008

Sixty-six university dairy and veterinary scientists launched a broad attack Monday against milk processors and retail marketers who increasingly seek to advertise and label milk produced by cows not treated with Monsanto’s recombinant bovine somatotropin. A letter from professors at nearly every major land grant university asserted there was no difference between conventional and “rBST-free” or organic milk but that consumers were being misled by emotional advertising claims to pay higher prices.

“Organic and ‘rBST-free’ milk are routinely advertised as being somehow healthier, less risky, more environmentally friendly, and produced by ‘happier’ cows than conventional milk,” the scientists’ letter said. “Consumers are led to believe that organic milk is better, or that ‘rbST-free’ milk is safer. The truth is quite different, but behind these claims are very powerful corporate interests that know that they can sell the same product at a higher price if they can create doubt or spread fear about conventional milk.”

The letter was coordinated by dairy medicine Prof. John Fetrow of the University of Minnesota and Dairy and Animal Science Department Head Terry D. Etherton of Penn State and signed by leading academics including Dale Bauman of Cornell University in New York, one of the pioneers in studying rBST. They cited a recent study in which more than 200 different samples of conventional, “rBST-free” and organic milk from retail stores across the U.S. were tested by audited procedures and found to have the same nutrient content and identical levels of the estrogen, IGF-1, bST. None contained antibiotics.

“It is easy to scare people by using the word ‘hormone,’ but all milk contains hormones and always has,” the letter said. “The levels of these hormones are the same in whatever milk you drink, and their presence poses no health risk to humans. Vitamin D is a steroid hormone and is added to milk. Milk also contains protein hormones, such as bovine somatotropin (also called bST or bovine growth hormone, BGH) and IGF-1. Both are present in tiny quantities in milk, are digested just like any other protein you eat (steak or tofu), and have no effect in people when eaten.”

The anti-rBST campaign was “particularly deceptive,” it said. “The vague and unsupportable assertions about ‘cancer’ or ‘antibiotic resistance’ (bST is not an antibiotic) are simply not scientifically credible. Oft-repeated smear campaigns can, however, gradually shape the public’s perceptions, and major food corporations understand the power of fear in selling food.”

The scientists asserted that “corporate interests can increase their profits if people fear conventional milk. They can make more money selling ‘rbST-free’ milk at $4/gallon or organic milk at $6/gallon (or more) than by selling conventional milk at $3/gallon, and the majority of that profit differential stays in the corporation’s hands.” The letter singled out Dean Foods, the largest fluid milk marketer, and Whole Foods Markets, the largest organic grocery chain, for financing the Organic Center, which “spreads fear and disinformation about conventional milk and other products of conventional agriculture” and touts products from Dean-owned Horizon Organic and Whole Foods.

The letter was released one week before an Ohio state review committee was to hold a hearing on a new regulation that would restrict “rBST-free” labeling and require a prominent label disclaimer that the milk is no different. It also would mandate record-keeping to verify the claim. The controversy has spread nationwide with Utah also contemplating label restrictions similar to Ohio’s and the legislatures of Missouri and Kansas considering bills to restrict “absence” claims. Pennsylvania proposed but withdrew a similar regulation. It also followed the announcement by Wal-Mart Stores, the leading U.S. food retailer, that it would sell own-label milk from rBST-free cows. Wal-Mart has not said whether it would put a claim on labels. A spokeswoman said only that the retailer was “considering our options on labels.”

Posted with permission.

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