What is rBGH in non-organic milk?


rBGH is a genetically engineered artificial hormone injected into dairy cows to make them produce more milk. Despite opposition from scientists, farmers and consumers, the US currently allows dairy cows to be injected with recombinant bovine growth hormone also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). Originally manufactured by the Monsanto Corporation, this genetically engineered hormone forces cows to artificially increase milk production by 10 to 15 percent. Today, controversy over safety still surrounds its use.

What is rBGH (and rBST)?

Somatotropin is a naturally occurring hormone produced in the pituitary gland of animals; bovine somatotropin (BST) triggers nutrients to increase growth in young cattle and lactation (milk production) in dairy cows. Artificial BST is produced using recombinant DNA technology (biotechnology), and called rBST for short. rBST is commonly known as Bovine Growth Hormone When injected into cows, it increases milk production 10 to 15 percent. One government study from 2007 estimated that approximately 17 percent of all cows in the US were given this artificial growth hormone.  

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved rBGH in 1993, despite criticism that the effects of rBGH were never properly assessed. The FDA’s approval was based solely on one study administered by Monsanto in which rBGH was tested for 90 days on 30 rats. Although the FDA stated that the results showed no significant problems, the study was never actually published.

The FDA continues to assure consumers that rBGH is safe for cows and humans, despite evidence to the contrary. In 1994, the FDA prohibited dairies from claiming there is any difference between milk from rBGH-injected cows and milk produced without the artificial hormone.  

In 1998, an assessment by Health Canada determined that the results of Monsanto’s 90-day study provided reason for review before its approval.  Today, the European Union, Japan, Australia, New Zealand  and Canada  do not allow the use of rBGH due to animal and human health concerns.

Animal and Human Risks

A 1991 report by Rural Vermont, a nonprofit farm advocacy group, revealed that rBGH-injected cows that were part of a Monsanto-financed study at the University of Vermont suffered serious health problems, including an alarming rise in the number of deformed calves and dramatic increases in mastitis, a painful bacterial infection of the udder, which causes inflammation,  swelling, and pus and blood secretions into milk.  These findings are supported by Health Canada’s 1998 report, which concluded that the use of rBGH increases the risk of mastitis by 25 percent, affects reproductive functions, increases the risk of clinical lameness by 50 percent, and shortens the lives of cows.  

To treat mastitis outbreaks, the dairy industry relies on antibiotics.  Critics of rBGH point to the subsequent increase in antibiotic use (which contributes to the growing problem of antibiotic resistant bacteria) and inadequacies in the federal government’s testing program for antibiotic residues in milk.  

Milk from rBGH-treated cows contains higher levels of IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor-1). While humans naturally have IGF-1, elevated levels in humans have been linked to colon and breast cancer. Although no direct connection has been made between elevated IGF-1 levels in milk and elevated IGF-1 levels or cancer in humans, some scientists have expressed concern over the possibility of this relationship.  

On the Offense

While the FDA was lax in its review, Monsanto aggressively attempted to suppress reports about the health risks involved in the use of the drug. In 2001, Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, two respected investigative journalists at a Fox News television station in Tampa, Florida, were fired after months of controversy surrounding their investigative report on rBGH use in Florida dairies. According to the journalists, the station delayed airing their story and demanded they include inaccurate information about rBGH after Monsanto threatened the station with legal action.  

In 2003, Monsanto asked the state of Maine to stop issuing an official Quality Seal, which the state only granted to dairies that do not use rBGH. Maine refused. Later that year, Monsanto sued Oakhurst Dairy, Maine’s largest dairy operation, over its rBGH-free labels. Ultimately, Oakhurst changed its labels, adding the statement, “FDA States: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormone.”  

Nonetheless, Monsanto lobbied the Canadian government to win rBGH approval. Dr. Margaret Hayden, a Health Canada researcher, reported to the Canadian Senate that officials from Monsanto had offered between $1 million to $2 million to Health Canada scientists—an offer she says could only be understood as an attempted bribe.  

The Revolving Door

Given the potential danger to the milk-drinking public and the proven danger to cows, critics argue that the FDA’s approval of rBGH was the result of pressure placed on the agency by Monsanto and its powerful lobbyists. Dr. Richard Burroughs, a senior FDA scientist overseeing the rBGH safety studies, claims he was fired because his concerns about the safety of rBGH delayed the approval process.  

Critics also note the existence of a “revolving door” between the FDA and Monsanto. For example, Michael Taylor, the FDA official responsible for writing the labeling guidelines, had worked as a Monsanto lawyer before joining the FDA. Likewise, the deputy director of the FDA’s New Animal Drugs Office had been a Monsanto research scientist working on rBGH safety studies, while another researcher in the same office had conducted Monsanto-funded rBGH research at Cornell University, working under a paid Monsanto consultant. Congress’ General Accounting Office ruled in 1994 that none of these cases of longstanding connections to Monsanto posed a conflict of interest.  

In the News Today

Despite the efforts of Monsanto and the dairy industry to promote rBGH, farmers, the public has largely rejected the artificial hormone.

In response to growing consumer concern, some dairies label their milk as “rBGH-free” or “No artificial growth hormones.” In attempt to make these labeling practices illegal, a pseudo “grassroots” nonprofit called American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT) was formed in February 2008.  Created by a public relations firm founded by two ex-Monsanto employees, AFACT received funding from Monsanto before it was dissolved in 2011.
The fight over milk labels took place across the US; attempts to ban rBGH-free labeling occurred in:

  • Pennsylvania: In October 2007, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture outlawed hormone-free labeling, claiming the labels are “false” and “misleading” to consumers.  In reaction to public outcry, Governor Ed Rendell allowed hormone-free labeling to be reinstated in January 2008.  
  • Ohio: In February 2008, Ohio Agriculture Director, Robert Boggs, approved the use of rBGH-free labeling only if the FDA’s disclaimer, “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-supplemented and non-rbST-supplemented cows,” was also included, in a way that made labeling virtually impossible.  However, in October 2010 a federal court overturned the rBGH labeling rule: the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit stated that there is a “compositional difference” between milk from cows receiving growth hormone and those that don’t, and ruled that companies are free to label their products as “rBGH free” and “rBST free.”  F
  • Indiana: In 2008, the Indiana legislature considered a bill to make artificial hormone-free labeling illegal, claiming milk would be “misbranded” if “compositional claims cannot be confirmed through laboratory analysis.”#FN_3128 The bill did not pass the legislature.
  • Kansas: In 2009, the Kansas legislature passed a bill that deemed any milk, milk product or dairy product label with a statement related to milk composition including “No Hormones,” “Hormone Free,” “rBST Free,” “rBGH Free,” and “BST Free” as false and misleading.  Governor Kathleen Sebelius vetoed the bill.  

Similar labeling controversies took place in Missouri, New Jersey, Utah and Vermont, but ultimately, no state made it illegal to label milk or dairy products as rBGH-free.

Despite industry efforts to keep consumers in the dark, food producers and suppliers have been listening to consumer concerns. In 2007, United States grocery chains Kroger  and Safeway prohibited the use of rBGH-treated milk in their store-branded dairy products. In January 2008, Starbucks stopped using rBGH-treated milk, and in March 2008, WalMart prohibited rBGH use in their store-brand milk products. In August 2008, Monsanto sold the division of the corporation that produces rBGH to Eli Lilly.  


Originally published in Sustainable.org

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