A friend of mine spammed me today with a video about how evil the big corporations Fox and Monsanto are because they’re lying to the public about the dangers of recombined bovine growth hormone. My characteristically verbose response:
My view of this issue is more than a little bit ambiguous. Stipulated that the FDA is corrupt and lazy. That was amply demonstrated when the FDA approved Fen-Phen and Vioxx. Now, recombined bovine growth hormone (rBGH) has been in the news for years and Monsanto’s use of litigation to protect its product has indeed been unusually aggressive. The product is physiologically the same as a hormone that occurs naturally in the cow (bovine growth hormone), but the injection does increase the level of that hormone. Canada’s national health authority, which is less obviously corrupt than the USFDA, sees problems for bovine health but not human health, from the use of rBGH.
Another thing to keep in mind is that for a small dairy farmer (and unlike corn and wheat producers, there are still a lot of small but viable dairy farms out there) the use of rBGH can have a real economic impact on the business as a whole because it can boost milk production by as much as 10% — so after about a week, each injection of the product essentially pays for itself in increased milk to sell to a processor. So were rBGH to be banned, that wouldn’t put large-scale corporate dairy farms out of business but it would mean that some of the smaller family-run dairy farms would have to sell out to the big guys. That may not justify the perceived health risk, of course, but it is a price that would have to be paid so it’s something that should be taken into account when making a decision about whether, and if so under what conditions, rBGH should be used or banned.
Testing and labeling is a tougher issue than it would seem at first glance. Monsanto’s lobbying against mandatory labeling laws has been based on the idea that it is impossible to tell from a sample of the milk product whether the cows that produced the milk were treated with rBGH or not. You can measure how much BGH was present in the cow based on the amount of an enzyme that resembles insulin, but because the BGH works in the cow’s bloodstream and then is metabolized, the hormone itself does not appear in the milk. The insulin enzyme is a byproduct of its presence, and it’s the same enzyme whether the hormone was naturally-occurring within the cow (BGH) or manufactured and injected (rBGH). So far as I can tell, even the anti-rBGH activists have conceded this point based on existing technology within the realm of reasonable cost-effectiveness. While in theory I would like the idea of a labeling law, it would seem that enforcing the law would require the inspectors to draw blood from the producing cows, so this could only effectively be done on a sampling basis and since producers sometimes sell to different processors, there would be no guarantee of accuracy by the time the product gets down to the consumer, rendering the labeling only a step better than guesswork.
Personally, I think I’d prefer to avoid milk produced by rBGH cows, although I would not go very far out of my way to do so. If milk I knew to be rBGH-free were ten cents more to the half-gallon than unlabelled milk, I might buy it, but beyond that I would become more price-sensitive than product-sensitive. Your tolerance may vary from mine. If you want to avoid rBGH in your milk, shop at Vons (they call it “Safeway” elsewhere), get your milk-based coffee drinks from Starbucks, and eat at Chipotle. I think you do at least two-thirds of that already. Ben & Jerry’s also only buys from rBGH-free dairies to make its ice cream. “Organic” milk basically means that it is rBGH-free; I don’t think there is really anything else “artificial” that can be done to alter the process of a cow eating grass and then turning it into milk and cow poop, so you can buy the more expensive “organic” milk. But just as there is no real way to enforce rBGH labeling, there is also no real way to enforce “organic” labeling, so enforcement would be very expensive and at the end of the day, you have to decide if you trust the seller to accurately represent their product to you as the consumer.
For me, the price difference between “organic” milk and the regular kind is greater than the minutely decreased health risk associated with someone claiming to be selling an “organic” product.
Now, my friend is a big health food nut and probably won’t like the idea that I’m balancing a few pennies against my health and that of my wife when I buy groceries, and would be quick to point out that the small diary farmers only use rBGH because the big companies do, too, and that they’d all be on an equal footing if the substance were banned from use. But mainly, my friend holds a religious-like belief in the power of “natural” things being good for your health. “Wholesome” things, I’ll buy into. But “natural?” Arsenic occurs naturally in the groundwater here. Just because it occurs in nature doesn’t make it good for you.
And the health effects on humans caused by rBGH use are nebulous but opponents of its use get to invoke the scary phrase “cancer accelerant.” Not being one to be readily frightened by such boogeymen, I want more data. It’s not at all clear what drinking milk with a higher than expected insulin-like ratio is. Sounds like it would be good for a diabetic to drink milk like that, but that would be a big leap on my part to proclaim as a fact. What I feel comfortable with saying is that rBGH is chemically identical with the naturally-occurring bovine hormone. Whether the chemical is created in a cow’s pancreas or in a laboratory in St. Louis, the effects of its use would be the same. If the chemical were harvested from non-dairy cows (say, from beef cattle shortly before it was slaughtered or from stud bulls) it would have the same effect.
The real issue is not the “artificial” origin of the chemical, it is the effect of increasing the amount of it in the animal. Here is where we run into the real problem. The FDA does not typically do its own studies, and relies on the scientific work of the proponent of a substance to prove its safety. Naturally, we might view that sort of data as not particularly objective or trustworthy. And the FDA is in kind of a no-win situation: doing its own work would be criticized as “over-regulation,” “needlessly duplicative,” and “dilatory.” When people are literally dying for lack of medicine, a government agency that slows down the distribution of that medicine can be seen as evil. But at the same time, the FDA is criticized for “under-regulating” the entities it is charged with policing and being “overly deferential” to their data.
We should not be afraid of new techniques for making food. We should not be afraid of genetic engineering coming to the aid of food producers or of eating the food that is generated through such methods. These should be subject to reasonable review and analysis. What is “reasonable” will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis. Attempting to define what is “reasonable” in all situations in advance will never be possible. We need a regulatory agency that takes seriously its mandate to protect and advance public health while not obstructing the advancement of science or not permitting legitimate commercial activity to take place.
Is that really too much to ask for?