Bovine Growth Hormone; Harmless for Humans

By Corey, Beverly | FDA Consumer, April 1990 | Go to article overview

Bovine Growth Hormone; Harmless for Humans


Corey, Beverly, FDA Consumer


Generations of Americans have been told that "Milk is nature's most perfect food," and the nutritional value of milk supports this claim. Milk sustains infants and is also beneficial to adults, including the elderly. Many people begin the day with it-by the glass, in cereal, coffee, and in baby's bottle. And because it is perceived as perfect and essential, some consumers and processors of milk products are highly uneasy about the decision of the Food and Drug Administration to allow marketing of milk from experimental herds injected with bovine growth hormone, also known as bovine somatotropin, or bST.

Some consumers suspect that this hormone, even if not harmful, at least detracts from the "purity" of milk. Such skepticism has many sources, ranging from a desire to protect children and an uneasiness about "nature-altering" biotechnology, to the underlying apprehension that life-sustaining gifts of agriculture are becoming polluted by chemistry. (See "Perspective on Food Biotechnology" in the March 1990 FDA Consumer.)

Writing not long ago about chemical firms that want to market bST, Milwaukee Journal columnist Joel McNally captured the public's wary state of mind: "Consumers," he wrote, "might have second thoughts about ... milk enhanced by the same companies that gave us such taste treats as vinyl chloride and polystyrene."

Adverse publicity has made bST a hot political issue among dairy farmers, particularly in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Vermont, many of whom demand that the hormone be banned. At a meeting in Washington, D.C., last summer, Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and a frequent critic of biotechnology, launched a campaign (the second in three years) against bST as a potentially dangerous drug "with no redeeming social value." He was joined by consumer, animal welfare, and environmental groups, as well as 40 public officials. The grass-roots pressure resulted in a partial boycott of milk produced by experimental herds that receive injections of the growth hormone in clinical animal studies being performed by commercial sponsors of the drug.

Subsequently, the supermarket chains of Safeway, Kroger, Stop & Shop, and Vons last August said they had agreed to not market milk from the bST-supplemented cows, and Kraft USA, Borden's, and Ben & Jerry's Homemade (the Vermont ice cream maker) announced they would not use it in their products. The country's largest dairy cooperative, Associated Milk Producers Incorporated, issued a statement that its 2 1,000 members will not give the hormone to their COWS.

"People are nervous about this substance," says Alan Parker, the Ben & Jerry spokesman. Coming on the heels of the widely publicized concerns about Alar-the growth regulator for apples whose cancer-causing metabolites resulted in the manufacturer withdrawing it from the market-the experiments with bST, in Parker's view, made many "consumers feel that they're losing contact with their food."

Unfounded Fears

bST is biologically inactive in humans. FDA concluded almost five years ago, based on extensive scientific investigation, that milk and meat from bST-supplemented experimental dairy cows may be used for human consumption without causing a risk to the public health. Fears about the growth hormone's effect on human health do not withstand close scrutiny.

Furthermore, talk about "natural" milk in the American marketplace is a piece of nostalgic fiction. Gone are the days when one consumed milk in the "natural" state in which it was drawn from the udder. Milk that is pasteurized to destroy bacteria, homogenized to evenly distribute fat, and fortified with vitamin D to improve nutritional qualities is the result of technological advances. Skim and low-fat milk are supermarket best sellers. Even the recent introduction of unrefrigerated ultra-long-life milk, yet another type of processed milk, represents the application of current technology to milk, and it has met little consumer resistance. …

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