Hormone Use in Cows Raises Eyebrows, But Concerns Are Complex

Q. I?ve been seeing ads for milk without artificial hormones. Should I buy it?

A. We think so, but not for the reasons you might suspect. First, you should know there’s no such thing as hormone-free milk, and the Food and Drug Administration has issued warnings to milk manufacturers that claim that on labels.

Natural vs Synthetic. That’s because all milk?even organic milk?contains minuscule amounts of bovine somatotropin (BST), also known as bovine growth hormone (BGH), produced naturally by the pituitary glands of cows. It’s the use of a synthetic hormone called rBST that’s been the bone of contention between dairy farmers and consumer groups for more than a decade now.

Is rBST Safe? Recombinant BST (rBST) or recombinant BGH (rBGH) is a bioengineered version of natural BST. The FDA approved it in 1993 for use in dairy cows to boost milk production by about 10%. Many of the industrialized nations around the globe including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and all of the nations in the European Union do not allow the use of rBGH because of human and animal health concerns. The Codex Alimentarius, the UN’s main food safety body, concluded there is no consensus that rBGH is safe for human consumption. The U.S. FDA considers milk from cows that are given rBST to be safe to drink. A National Institutes of Health panel also reviewed the data and pronounced the use of rBST safe, because rBST is a “species-specific hormone” that has no activity in humans. Moreover, unlike steroid hormones (like estrogens), which are active when taken by mouth, protein hormones (like insulin and rBST) are broken down in the stomach into their component amino acids, just like any other protein.

Labels to Look for. Acceptable labels for milk produced without the use of rBST may read: “from cows not treated by rBST” accompanied by “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBST-treated and non-rBST-treated cows.” The use of rBST is not an issue with certified organic milk, because the criteria state that organic milk cannot come from cows treated with rBST.The Real Deal. Concerns over the use of rBST have to do with animal welfare. rBST has been linked with increased foot problems, mastitis, and injection site reactions in dairy cows. Mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands, may require treatment with antibiotics. The rise in antibiotic use is of concern because it results in new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

EN’s Bottom Line. There’s a growing trend to sell or serve only dairy products from untreated cows. While there may be insufficient proof of immediate safety concerns, EN still advises choosing milk from cows not treated with rBST. Potential problems from antibiotic overuse and possible ill effects on cows? health are reason enough.

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