IS BGH IN TROUBLE?

This article excerpted from an article in Rachel's Enviroment and Health Weekly, a weekly newsletter published on the Internet - Ed.)

By Peter Montague

The Monsanto corporation's genetically-engineered hormone, rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), seems to be in trouble. The product is marketed to dairy farmers for injection into their cows to boost milk production about 10%, but a survey of farmers last summer indicated that enthusiasm for the product remains low. And last month a new peer-reviewed medical study argued that rBGH may promote cancer of the breast and colon in humans who drink milk from rBGH-treated cows.

Monsanto has bet the future of the company on genetic engineering, and rBGH is the company's first, showcase biotech product. The hormone, which Monsanto sells under the trade name Posilac, and which is also known as BST or BGH or rBGH, has been bitterly opposed by consumer groups on grounds that (a) its effects on humans are not known, but may well be negative; (b) it is not good for cows; (c) it is not needed because the U.S. already produces far more milk than it can consume and taxpayers presently have to foot the bill for purchasing and dumping this excess milk; and (d) there are better, non-chemical alternatives for increasing milk production, if that is a particular farmer's goal.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved rBGH for sale in November, 1993 and the product went on the market in early 1994.

When grocery stores began labeling certain milk as rBGH-free, as a help to their customers who might want to avoid purchasing milk from cows injected with the drug, Monsanto sued to prevent such labeling. Those lawsuits were Monsanto's home-grown variant of the "banana laws" that the food industry has been successfully promoting nationwide, to prevent food-safety advocates from speaking out about potential dangers of chemically-treated foods. However Monsanto lost —or abandoned —all the labeling lawsuits, so labeling milk as rBGH-free is now permitted. The federal FDA, however, has refused to require labeling of milk from rBGH-treated cows.

An important California newspaper, the FRESNO BEE, reported late last year that farmers in California —the largest dairy state —are treating rBGH like a dirty secret: no one wants to talk about it, and no one wants to admit using it.

"Some are embarrassed to talk about it," said Loren Lopes, a Turlock, California producer who milks 300 cows without rBGH. Mr. Lopes said he has heard of farmers who store their Posilac in an out-of-sight cabinet or in their home. Some farmers inject their cows themselves after the hired hands go home.

Many older farmers believe their cows are more than mere milk factories to be used up and discarded. Injecting rBGH reduces a cow's life expectancy and increases her risk of disease. Normally for about 12 weeks after a cow calves, she produces milk at the expense of her own tissues. She loses weight, she is infertile, and she is more susceptible to diseases such as mastitis (inflammation of the udder). Eventually her milk output diminishes, her food intake catches up, and she begins to rebuild her body. By injecting rBGH, a farmer can postpone for another 8 to 12 weeks the time when the cow begins rebuilding her body. This means that the cow is stressed for another 8 to 12 weeks and is more susceptible to infection during that period. This takes its toll on the animal.

Dr. Samuel S. Epstein at the University of Illinois in Chicago last month published a paper arguing that rBGH-treated cows have increased levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which may well promote cancer of the breast and of the colon in humans who drink such milk.

Epstein pulled no punches: "In short," he wrote, "with the active complicity of the FDA, the entire nation is currently being subjected to an experiment involving large-scale adulteration of an age-old dietary staple by a poorly characterized and unlabeled biotechnology product. Disturbingly, this experiment benefits only a very small segment of the agrichemical industry while providing no matching benefits to consumers. Even more disturbingly, it poses major potential public health risks for the entire U.S. population," Dr. Epstein wrote.

Copyright Mendocino College Eagle 1995 Permission granted to use articles if source is cited


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