Caption

Cow with mastitis

rBGH

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 (rBGH), 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 the use of rBGH.

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 or rBGH. When injected into cows, rBGH 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.   1

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.   2

In 1998, an assessment by Health Canada determined that the results of Monsanto’s 90-day study provided reason for review before approval of rBGH.   3   4 Today, the European Union,   5 Japan   6, Australia,   7 New Zealand   8 and Canada   9 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,   10 swelling, and pus and blood secretions into milk.   11 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.   12

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.   14

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.   14

On the Offense

While the FDA was lax in its review of rBGH, 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.   15

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."   16

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.   17

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.   18

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.   19

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.   20 Created by a public relations firm founded by two ex-Monsanto employees, AFACT received funding from Monsanto before it was dissolved in 2011.   21   20
The fight over milk labels took place across the US; attempts to ban rBGH-free labeling occurred in:

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   29 and Safeway   30 prohibited the use of rBGH-treated milk in their store-branded dairy products. In January 2008, Starbucks   31 stopped using rBGH-treated milk, and in March 2008, WalMart   32 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.   33

footnotes

  1. Loehr, R. (1968). Pollution implications of animal wastes—A forward-oriented review. In Water Pollution Control Research Series. Office of Research and Monitoring, Environmental Protection Agency (p. 26).
  2. Wal-Mart. (2008). Wal-mart offers private label milk produced without artificial growth hormone. [Press Release]. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.walmartstores.com/pressroom/news/8147.aspx
  3. Starbucks. (n.d.). Starbucks completes its conversion - all U.S. company-operated stores use dairy sourced without the use of rBGH. [Press Release]. Retrieved April 2008.
    link broken
  4. MacFarland, J. (2008, March 22). Wal-mart move 'tipping point' for non-hormone milk. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_11050.cfm
  5. Kroger. (2007). Kroger to complete transition to certified rBST-free milk by early 2008. [Press Release]. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.thekrogerco.com/corpnews/corpnewsinfo_pressreleases_08012007.htm
  6. Hanna, J. (2009, April 24). Milk label veto likely to stand. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.hutchnews.com/Todaystop/milklabel2009-04-24T21-15-34
  7. Morris, O. (2009). New kansas bills restricts rBGH labeling. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_17366.cfm
  8. House Bill No. 1300, 115th Cong., 2nd Sess. (2008). Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.in.gov/legislative/bills/2008/IN/IN1300.1.html
  9. Fulton, A. (2010). Court oks hormone-free label on dairy products in ohio. NPR. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2010/10/01/130270131/court-give-hormone-free-label-on-dairy-products-an-ok-in-ohio
  10. Ohio Agriculture Department. (2008). Ohio agriculture department revises product labeling rule. [Press Release]. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.idfa.org/key-issues/category/labeling--standards/rbst/details/3049/
  11. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. (2007). Governor rendell says consumers can have greater confidence in milk labels. [Press Release]. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.targetednews.com/pr_disp.php?pr_id=1628790
  12. Pennsylvania agriculture department notifies companies about false or misleading milk and dairy product labels. (2007, October 24). Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/pa-agriculture-department-notifies-companies-about-false-or-misleading-milk-and-dairy-product-labels-58898592.
  13. Martin, A. (2008, March 9). Fighting on a battlefield the size of a milk label. The New York Times. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/business/09feed.html?_r=3&oref=slogin
  14. AFACT: American farmers for the advancement and conservation of technology. (n.d.). Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://itisafact.org/about-us/
  15. Ferrara, J. (1998). Revolving doors: Monsanto and the regulators. The Ecologist. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.monitor.net/monitor/9904b/monsantofda.html
  16. The whistle blowers controversy, or the people who wouldn't be manipulated. (2008). Combat Monsanto. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.combat-monsanto.co.uk/spip.php?article235
  17. Baxter, J. (1998). Monsanto accused of attempt to bribe health canada for rGBH (posilac) approval. The Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.ethicalinvesting.com/monsanto/news/10009.htm
  18. Mack, S. K. (2003). Maine dairy caves in to pressure from Monsanto on rBGH-free labeling. Bangor Daily News. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/monsanto/mainegives122903.cfm
  19. Rampton, S., & Stauber, J. (1998). Monsanto and fox: Partners in censorship. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.prwatch.org/prwissues/1998Q2/foxbgh.html
  20. Hansen, M., Halloran, J., Groth, E., & Lefferts, L. Y. (1997). Potential public health impacts of the use of recombinant bovine somatotropin in dairy production. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_food_safety/002272.html
  21. Antibiotics
  22. Report of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association Expert panel on rBST. (1998, November). Health Canada. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/vet/issues-enjeux/rbst-stbr/rep_cvma-rap_acdv_tc-tm-eng.php
  23. Diagnosis of mastitis and diagnostic methods for investigating udder health problems. (n.d.). New York Health Assurance Program Veterinary Resource. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://nyschap.vet.cornell.edu/module/mastitis/section2/Diagnostic%20methods.pdf
  24. Kastel, M. (1995). Down on the farm: The real BGH story animal health problems, financial troubles. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.mindfully.org/GE/Down-On-The-Farm-BGH1995.htm
  25. Hess, G. (1999). Canada rejects bovine growth hormone; Monsanto vows to appeal the decision. Retrieved August 16, 2012.
    http://www.icis.com/Articles/1999/01/25/85398/canada-rejects-bovine-growth-hormone-monsanto-vows-to-appeal-the.html
  26. Akre, J. (2008, August 6). A decade of consumer pressure is driving monsanto's bovine growth hormone off the market. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_14008.cfm
  27. A risk profile of dairy products in Australia. (2006, August 9). Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Retrieved August 15, 2012.
    http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/_srcfiles/P296%20Dairy%20PPPS%20FAR%20Attach%202%20FINAL%20-%20mr.pdf
  28. Japan Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare. (2004). Ministerial ordinance on milk and milk products concerning compositional standards. Retrieved August 2012.
    http://www.mhlw.go.jp/english/topics/foodsafety/dl/t-1.pdf
  29. Council of the European Union. (2000). Internal Market, Consumer Affairs, and Tourism. 2289th Council meeting, Brussels. Retrieved August 2012.
    http://www.consilium.europa.eu/ueDocs/cms_Data/docs/pressdata/en/lsa/ACF252B.html
  30. Report of the royal college of physicians and surgeons of canada expert panel on human safety of rBST. (1999, January). Health Canada. Retrieved on August 15, 2012.
    http://hc-sc.gc.ca/dhp-mps/vet/issues-enjeux/rbst-stbr/rep_rcpsc-rap_crmcc-eng.php
  31. Hansen, M. (1998, December 15). FDA's safety assessment of recombinant bovine growth hormone. Consumer Union . Retrieved August 16, 2012.
    http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_food_safety/002269.html
  32. Schneider, K. (1994, February 8). F.D.A warns the dairy industry not to label milk hormone-free. The New York Times. Retrieved August 16, 2012.
    http://www.nytimes.com/1994/02/08/us/fda-warns-the-dairy-industry-not-to-label-milk-hormone-free.html
  33. USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. (2011). Highlights of dairy 2007 part iv: Reference of dairy cattle health and management practices in the United States, 2007.
    http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/nahms/dairy/index.shtml