Milk: A Play in Several Acts

Enter stage left: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration declares in late 1993 that synthetic growth hormones are safe to use on cows for increased milk production. They go by a few names: rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin), rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) and Posilac, the preferred name over at Agro bio-tech giant Monsanto.


Moo. (Kim O'Donnel)

After the FDA approval, Monsanto introduces Posilac to the food supply in 1994.

In the late 1990s, rBGH is banned in Canada and the European Union.

Fall 2002: Enter the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which gives the all-clear for national organic standards and a USDA-approved logo on certified organic products.

Meanwhile, retail sales of organic milk grow steadily, with sales of organic milk and cream edging over $1 billion in 2005, up 25 percent from 2004 [PDF]. Between 1998 and 2005, the average annual growth rate of retail sales of all organic food has been 18 percent. (Source: Economic Research Service of the USDA)

In his Dec. 2007 statement to the Ohio Dairy Labeling Advisory Committee, Michael Hansen, a senior scientist with Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, testified the following:

In June, 2007, the Consumer Reports National Research Center polled over 1,000 people nationwide on various food labeling issues [PDF]; some 76% of those polled were concerned with "dairy cows given synthetic growth hormones" and 88% agreed that "milk from cows raised without synthetic bovine growth hormone should be allowed to be labeled as such.

Enter AFACT [PDF] or American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology, an advocacy group formed last fall in defense of rBGH. The question some want to know: Is Monsanto involved?

Monsanto files a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, alleging that hormone-free milk labeling is misleading the public and is "false and deceptive advertising." Its request for a formal investigation is denied [PDF].

Over on the state stage, the labeling drama has traveled to Missouri, Utah, Pennsylvania (where an Oct. 2007 label ban was recently reversed), and most recently, in Ohio.

In March, Wal-Mart announces that its private-label milk is now rBGH-free, regardless of the label controversy.

The big dairy farmers want you to know the Rbst facts as they see'em, and Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group in Wisconsin, sees things differently with its dairy score card.

With the labeling flap making matters even more confusing, here's a state-by-state map of brands, stores and producers selling milk without rBGH.

And if you're in need of some levity after sitting through this Greek dairy tragedy, check out this cheeky online video, The Meatrix: 2, a tragicomic trilogy on factory farming produced by Free Range Studios.

Now who wants a milk shake?

By Kim ODonnel |  April 3, 2008; 10:24 AM ET Eco-Bites
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Comments

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So I assume that any milk labeled as organic does not have any of those hormones in it? I usually buy the store brand organic when it's on sale, but their labels tend to not have any info except the organic logo. (Unlike Horizon, etc. who put all sorts of info on there about their practices.)

Posted by: Washington, DC | April 3, 2008 10:33 AM

I ADORE that grass-fed milk, it tastes so much better than regular organic milk and eating grass is so much better for the cows (and by extension, us)

Posted by: natural by nature | April 3, 2008 11:49 AM

I agree with natural by nature, we are having our milk delivered by a Frederick area farm. The milk changes flavor over the year as the feed the cows have changes, grass in the summer and silage (I think) in the winter. Summer milk is the best. Also grass fed means it is much less likely for the animal to have been treated with antibiotics.

Posted by: late to the party | April 3, 2008 12:27 PM

For Washington DC. You're correct, any milk that is certified organic comes from cows that have not had any synthetic growth hormones such as rGBH or rBST or any antibiotics. Both of these are prohibited under the organic regulations.

If you want further information about the milk, any certified organic packaged product is required to identify the certifier on it. On the information panel it must state something to the effect of "Certified Organic by..." and then the certifiers name or acronym. If you want further information about what is allowed for dairy animals, call a certifier, they should help. You can find contact information for all certifiers at the National Organic Program website: http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/CertifyingAgents/Accredited.html.

Full disclosure, I am the lead inspector for an accredited certifier in North Carolina, and have worked in organic certification since 1998...I'm officially older than the Feds at this!

Posted by: Organic Gal | April 3, 2008 12:40 PM

I just take the safe and easy road -- organic soy and almond milks!

Posted by: Maggie | April 3, 2008 3:17 PM

I read about this in an article in the NY Times about a month ago.
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/business/11feed.html?scp=3&sq=monsanto+organic+milk&st=nyt#
It seems absurd that AFACT (Monsanto) would go after state legislatures to REMOVE factual information (i.e. this milk product is hormone free) from labels. It's utterly outrageous and is a textbook example of how big business controls our lawmakers instead of them working on our behalf!

We like to buy grass fed milk because it tastes so much better! And the milk fat profile is more beneficial in grass fed dairy cows than in grain fed dairy cows. I believe the grass fed cows provide more omega-3 fats, which are so lacking in the American diet.

I love that Wal-Mart labels its milk hormone free. Let's watch Monsanto go after them! This should pit one business interest against another and Wal-Mart will be on the side of consumers!

Kim, have you ever met Nina Planck, author of Real Food? Her family has a stand at the Dupont Market and she is a big advocate of raw, grass fed milk products.

Posted by: Sean | April 3, 2008 4:14 PM

There are no synthetic hormones in conventional milk. None in organic milk, either. Both have plenty of natural bovine hormones -- all milk is full of whatever natural growth hormones are right for the baby animals meant to drink that milk. There are no artificial hormones in any milk, and the natural hormone content of conventional, "rBST-free", or organic milk is exactly the same.

The reason there is a controversy about labeling is that the "hormone-free" labeling tricks consumers into thinking that there's a difference in the milk when there isn't. You pay extra for the organic or "rBST-free" label but you are getting exactly the same product. (No, I don't work for Monsanto. I own a small, family-owned conventional dairy farm, and I am tired of dishonest milk marketers who profit by frightening people into believing falsehoods.)

Ever since rBST came on the market, scientists on all sides of the debate have been trying to find a test that can tell the difference between milk produced by an rBST-treated cow and a non-rBST-treated cow. In all that time, nobody has been able to find any test that can tell the difference -- because there is no difference. Cows treated with rBST process all of it in their bodies; none of it gets into the milk. No harm is done to the cow, either. If it did harm the cow, we wouldn't use it. Our cows are our capital and we are not about to hurt them in any way, no matter what nonsense you read in the anti-farm press.

When you pay extra for "rBST-free" milk, remember that it hasn't been and can't be tested. You have only the milk marketer's word that rBST wasn't used, and nobody, anywhere, has any way of knowing whether the marketer is telling the truth. Some of them probably aren't.

As for antibiotics -- there are none in conventional milk. None in "rBST-free" milk. None in organic milk, either. There is no difference in the milk. There is, however, a difference in the way the cows are treated. Conventional farms treat cows that need antibiotics with antibiotics, and withhold their milk until the antibiotics have completely cleared the milk. Organic farms aren't allowed to use antibiotics, no matter how sick a cow is. An organic farm has to let a sick cow suffer (and mastitis, a common cow illness that responds to antibiotics, HURTS.) They fool around with homeopathy, or else, if they care about the cow, they go ahead and give her antibiotics and sell her to a conventional farm. They have to, because once the cow has had antibiotics she can never be used on an organic farm again -- even though the antibiotics will clear her system completely within a short period of time, and after that, there is no difference between that cow and the other cows in the barn. There is no scientific reason to do this. It does not improve the quality of the milk in any way. It does not protect anybody's health. It causes cows to suffer. It is done only to please people who don't understand either agriculture or biology and who are easily deceived into thinking that the farmers who don't treat sick animals with the medicine they need are more "humane" than the ones who do.

You can buy conventional milk, organic milk, or milk with an "rBST-free" label on it. The milk inside is identical. The only difference is in the packages--and, of course, in the price. If you want to pay extra for nothing but a label, go ahead, it's your choice. But don't kid yourself that you're helping the "family farmer" when you hand money to marketers who are profiting by tricking you into believing that wholesome food is bad for you.

Posted by: beatrix | April 6, 2008 7:57 PM

"late to the party" said: "Also grass fed means it is much less likely for the animal to have been treated with antibiotics."

No, it doesn't. If you like the taste of the milk you're buying, that's a good reason to keep buying it. But feeding cows grass doesn't keep them from needing antibiotics. Any animal can get sick, just as any kid can get sick even if their parents do everything right and try their hardest. Most cows are grass-fed at least to some extent, whether their milk comes in specialty boutique bottle or not. Ours are, for instance. They are on pasture eight or nine months of the year, as long as the season allows. That's a perfectly typical, ordinary practice, nothing special, nothing fancy. We're a well-managed farm, we take good care of our cows, and they don't need antibiotics often -- but they do need them sometimes and when they do, we provide them. It doesn't hurt the cow; it helps her get better. It doesn't hurt the milk, because we don't sell the milk from that cow until after the clearance time on the label has passed and tests show that the milk is free of antibiotics.

All conventional milk is extensively tested -- every load, at the farm, by the hauler, and by the processor -- to make sure that no trace of antibiotics has somehow snuck in. Nobody tries to cheat because the penalties are enormous. Anyway nobody WANTS to cheat, because we drink the milk too!

Buy your grass-fed milk for its taste, if that works for you. But don't imagine that feeding grass has anything at all to do with whether the cow got antibiotics at some point before you drank the milk. It doesn't.

Posted by: beatrix | April 6, 2008 8:14 PM

My reading has indicated that grain fed cows require antibiotics more often. And that this is true because the cow's intenstinal track is not meant to be fed grain so the feeding of grain causes infection in the gut. It is my understanding that those organizations that feed their cows grain put antibiotics in the feed as a preventitive measure. It is also my understanding that milk produced under those conditions has antibiotic residues.

Futher it is my understanding that milk is tested to ensure it does not have antibiotics above a tolerance level determined by the FDA which is different from having no trace of antibiotics.

Always happy to learn, so if I am misinformed please share your knowledge.

Posted by: late to the party | April 7, 2008 11:45 AM

Well, beatrix, I assume that means that everything "natural" has hormones?
Thanks for the update on the relationship between the "family farmer" and the marketer.
I'm not exactly sure what you're telling me.
Should I ignore ALL labels and just ingest (figuratively and literally) what the government gives me?
Many places indicated they CAN test for rbGH - are they lying?
This is one more reason it's best to GET TO KNOW who you're buying from. Once you have a RELATIONSHIP, then maybe it'll be easier to understand how they're growing / producing what you're eating and drinking.
In today's marketing / advertising glut, "organic" has been co-opted to mean "higher consumer price" leading to greater profit.
Let's help Monsanto go out of business.
Local, rbGH-free dairies get my vote.
Do YOU know what causes cancer? (please advise if you do...it'd be easier on the rest of us)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle

Posted by: robjdisc | April 7, 2008 11:58 AM

Late to the party said: "My reading has indicated that grain fed cows require antibiotics more often. And that this is true because the cow's intenstinal track is not meant to be fed grain so the feeding of grain causes infection in the gut. It is my understanding that those organizations that feed their cows grain put antibiotics in the feed as a preventitive measure. It is also my understanding that milk produced under those conditions has antibiotic residues."

Late, your understandings are mostly wrong. It is true that grain is less "natural" to a cow's digestion than grass and that it may make some cows more prone to indigestion or other problems -- but feeding grain certainly does not cause infections of any kind. Grass is definitely good for cows. So is grain. Most farmers feed what's called a "balanced ration" that combines grains, forage (including grass when possible) and other nutrients according to the best advice from dairy nutritionists as to what will promote the cow's health and comfort. If the cow is unhealthy or uncomfortable, the farmer loses money. Believe me, we break our necks to keep our animals happy!

As for feeding antibiotics, No dairy farmer, ever, anywhere in this country, feeds antibiotics to lactating dairy animals as part of their grain or in any other way. This is against the law and besides, it would be stupid. Very young calves are sometimes fed antibiotics during their first few weeks because they are extremely susceptible to overwhelming infection during that time. Otherwise, no dairy animal ever receives antibiotics unless she is sick and needs them, and in that case her milk is not supplied to human beings until the antibiotics have completely cleared her system. Anyone who tells you that feed laced with antibiotics is ever fed to a dairy cow is either confused or lying to you. Anyone who tells you that milk "produced under these conditions" has antibiotic residues is also either confused or lying to you. No milk is "produced under these conditions" and no milk being sold today has antibiotic residues in it.

"Futher it is my understanding that milk is tested to ensure it does not have antibiotics above a tolerance level determined by the FDA which is different from having no trace of antibiotics." The FDA's tolerance level is basically, if there's a trace, the milk cannot be sold. The tests are the most sensitive tests that exist. No farmer would take the risk of shipping milk that has any possibility of a trace of antibiotic residues in it -- the penalties are enough to drive most of us out of business. There are no antibiotics at all, in any amount, in any milk that you can buy at the grocery store.

Posted by: Beatrix | April 7, 2008 1:09 PM

"Well, beatrix, I assume that means that everything "natural" has hormones?"

I don't know about "everything," but all milk from any mammal -- human, cow, whale, goat, whatever-- has natural hormones in it. No cow milk for sale anywhere has synthetic or added hormones in it of any kind.

"Should I ignore ALL labels and just ingest (figuratively and literally) what the government gives me?"

I'm not the government -- can't tell you what to do about that. I'm just doing my best to tell you what I do know about what's in milk.

"Many places indicated they CAN test for rbGH - are they lying?"

Yes, any place that indicates that it can test for rbGH is lying. No such test exists. Most marketers who sell "rBGH-free" milk make the claim based on promises from their suppliers (who are more middle-men, not the farmers themselves) that the milk does not come from cows that were given rBGH. The marketers have no way of knowing whether or not those promises are being kept.

Similarly, if you buy milk from a local, rBGH-free dairy, neither you nor the milk inspectors who oversee the dairy's production have any way of knowing whether the dairy is telling you the truth about its use of rBGH. Don't get me wrong, most likely they are telling the truth -- I'm not suggesting that farmers are any more likely than anybody else to be dishonest. It's just that nobody but the farmer knows for sure.

Milk marketers, on the other hand, who claim that any test exists for rBGH or that rBGH milk is different from other milk in any way are as dishonest as it gets. Please remember how much money these companies stand to make by frightening people unnecessarily about their food. Please don't let them make fools of you.

"This is one more reason it's best to GET TO KNOW who you're buying from. Once you have a RELATIONSHIP, then maybe it'll be easier to understand how they're growing / producing what you're eating and drinking."

I agree.

Posted by: Beatrix | April 7, 2008 1:20 PM

I don't mean to wear out my welcome here by over-posting but I just noticed one more thing in the original post. That's this excerpt from the Consumer Reports poll: "88% agreed that "milk from cows raised without synthetic bovine growth hormone should be allowed to be labeled as such."

If this accurately quotes the question from the poll, then not even the pollsters understood what the heck they were talking about. NO DAIRY COW is "raised" with synthetic bovine growth hormone. That makes it sound as if farmers are injecting their young animals with hormones to accelerate their growth. Doesn't happen. Couldn't happen. Wouldn't work if it did. No young, growing dairy animal ever receives artificil growth hormones of any kind.

Farmers who use rBGH inject it once a month into an ADULT animal for a few months during the cow's 9- or 10-month lactation. If the farmer also gives the cow additional high quality feed, the cow will then produce more milk -- milk that is absolutely identical in every way to the milk she would have produced without the rBGH. It does not make the cow grow. She is done growing by then and it wouldn't have that effect anyway. It does not have any effect on her body at all other than to stimulate her to make more milk. (The claim that it makes her more likely to suffer mastitis and need antibiotics came from a very early study and was long ago disproved, though that doesn't stop people from saying it. If it made our animals sick, we wouldn't use it, period. We cannot afford to have sick animals.)

Anyway it just drives me nuts that this poll was used to spread even more misinformation!

Posted by: beatrix | April 7, 2008 1:40 PM

The U.S. is the only developed country that currently allows rBST in milk production. A study by Health Canada determined that rBST use increases incidents of mastitis, and somatic cell count in the milk. It also increases cow infertility 18% and lameness 50%. Although there is no test that shows the presence of rBST in the milk, I purchase milk that is verified free of rBST not because of the molecular composition of the milk, but for the improvement in quality of life for the animals.

The story for rGBH is no better. Perhaps at this time there is no test for the presence of rBGH in milk, but again, a Health Canada study verifies increased immunological reactions by 20-30% in testing on rats. Additionally, prostate cysts developed in male rats.

Beatrix probably is correct that rBGH cannot be detected in milk in current tests. However, this does not mean that growth hormones are safe. Significant testing done outside of the U.S., done by reputable authorities (the Canadian equivalent of the FDA), shows significant health risks based on the use of these growth hormones, at least for the animals injected with these materials.

As far as withholding treatment to maintain organic status, that is completely false. Per the USDA National Organic Program "The producer must not...Withhold medical treatment from a sick animal in an effort to preserve its organic status. All appropriate medications MUST (emphasis mine) be used to restore an animal to health when methods acceptable to organic production fail." Not only do animals that fall ill get treated, failure to treat an animal is cause for denial or revocation of organic certification. Yes, it is true that the animal then loses its organic status. But animals on organic farms are NOT suffering, and to suggest otherwise is at best, failure to read the regulations, and at worst, is a deliberate misrepresentation of organic farming practices.

The fact of the matter is that growth hormones are documented to shorten the effective productive life of a milk cow (how many cows that have been treated with growth hormones are still milking after 10+ breedings? I know of at least 20, on as many different organic farms). They're documented to increase health problems in cows. How many cows treated with growth hormones have EVER had an somatic cell reading of 0? Yeah, zero. I have copies of the tests. Again, yeah...plural. It's real. As are the increased health risks for cows given growth hormones.

At this time, no one is asking for rBST or rBGH to be removed from the market. They're only asking to give consumers a choice. If a consumer wants to choose milk that comes from cows that haven't been treated with growth hormones, they should be allowed that choice. The labeling laws proposed is taking choice away from the consumer. And if Monsanto was positive that their product does not cause any problems, why are they fighting this so hard? If it's fine, why aren't they labeling their milk in bold type 'MADE FROM COWS TREATED WITH rGBH!' If there are no risks associated with their product, they shouldn't be threatened by labels that say milk is from cows that haven't been treated with it.

Posted by: Organic Gal | April 7, 2008 3:35 PM

Beatrix, I don't think anyone here was talking about small farms. The problems with antibiotics are more to do with large-scale confined animal feeding operations. Antibiotics are a problem because of the risk of antibiotic resistance. Just like with humans, large numbers of animals living in tight quarters are more likely to pass around communicable diseases than animals kept in smaller concentrations. This means that these large-scale feed operations use more antibiotics because their animals get sick more often. As far as grass-fed versus grain-fed cattle, cattle who eat corn have a more acidic digestive system, and this pH makes it easier for deadlier forms of e-coli to grow, like e-coli O157:H7.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 7, 2008 3:49 PM

I don't know who "Health Canada" is. I am speaking from our experience with our cows and from what our veterinarians tell us about the current studies. Our cows have suffered no deleterious health consequences at all from the use of rBGH and our veterinarians (who are not in the pay of Monsanto in any way) tell us that studies that showed otherwise are out of date and were poorly designed -- current studies show no negative health consequences at all. Once more I repeat, we would not use it if it did. We love our cows and what's more, we need them to be healthy and happy or we would go out of business.

The prohibition against the use of antibiotics on organic farms is absolutely true, at least here in New York where we farm. We met with New York's organic certification authorities when we were considering "going organic" a few years ago and were given the regulations on this point, which are exactly as I stated above. The prohibition against all use of antibiotics was the primary reason we decided not to do so. Organic milk packages here are clearly labeled "Produced without the use of antibiotics." What, are they lying? Perhaps this is a New York regulation and not a federal one -- that might be the source of our disagreement. In any case, in New York there is no question that an organic dairy farmer may not give any antibiotics to any cow, ever -- if he does and is caught, he will lose his certification. As for claiming that sick animals that are deprived of antibiotics don't suffer, have you ever seen a cow with mastitis before she is medicated? If not, you do not know what you are talking about. It hurts, and if the cow is not treated with a medication that actually works (as opposed to foolishness like homeopathy) she is definitely suffering. The belief that she isn't is what organic milk buyers want to believe, not what is actually the truth.

As for lactation length, yes, we have several cows on our small family farm that are well past 10 lactations with the use of rBST. We don't use it on all our cows and there is no difference between the useful lives of those who do get it and those who don't. As I keep repeating, if it shortened their useful lives or hurt them in any other way, we would not use it. They are our primary resource. We are not cruel and we are not stupid.

Somatic cell readings -- hardly any cow, anywhere, no matter how she's treated, has a somatic cell reading of zero. I am at work and don't have our numbers in front of me but we regularly receive awards for our extremely-low somatic cell counts. We have individual numbers for each cow taken monthly and there is no difference at all between our rBGH-treated and non-rBGH-treated animals. Again, if there were, we wouldn't use it. Our veterinarian tells us that the highest somatic cell counts he sees in his practice comes from the organic farms - perhaps because they do not withhold the milk from their animals with mastitis, as conventional farmers must do because of antibiotic use.

Buy whatever milk you want -- if you prefer organic milk and want to buy it, more power to you. Just try not to believe the falsehoods from those who want you to believe that conventional farmers are poisoning your food. We aren't. That's all there is to it. It seems odd to me that people are so sure Monsanto must be lying because it has a profit motive in this (which surely it does) but they can't see that the milk marketers ALSO have a profit motive and benefit from lying. If only more people came from farms or knew farmers, it would be much harder to fool so many of them -- that's why I agreed with the poster above who said it's best to get to know the people who produce your food whenever you can. OrganicGal, try getting to know a few conventional dairy farmers. You might be surprised at what you'd learn.

Posted by: Beatrix | April 7, 2008 4:05 PM

"Antibiotics are a problem because of the risk of antibiotic resistance. Just like with humans, large numbers of animals living in tight quarters are more likely to pass around communicable diseases than animals kept in smaller concentrations. This means that these large-scale feed operations use more antibiotics because their animals get sick more often." I agree with this. But just please bear in mind that it DOES NOT MEAN that there are antibiotics in the milk from these or any other farms, small or large. Also bear in mind that large farms are more closely regulated and supervised so in many ways it's harder for them to get away with sloppy practices than it is for small farms. People want to romanticize small farms at the expense of larger farms, but in reality, there are advantages and disadvantages to both modes of operation when it comes to animal health and product quality.

Posted by: Beatrix | April 7, 2008 4:08 PM

Quick clarification: the fed. organic regulations, at least, permit an organic dairy producer to use antibiotics or growh hormones, but she must then wait a full year before selling that cow's milk labeled organic. I should have made this more clear in my earlier post. It amounts to the same thing as an absolute prohibition because nobody can afford to keep a cow out of production for a full year. Some clever organic farmers maintain two herds -- one organic, one conventional -- so that a cow that needs antibiotics can be switched over to the conventional herd during the one-year waiting period and her production is not lost. That seems like a good solution to me, but the prohibition against antibiotics is silly and completely without any scientific basis. As long as the milk is withheld from sale until the antibiotics have completely cleared the cow's system -- and all farmers do this -- there will be no antibiotics in the milk. They do not linger in the cow's system forever.

Posted by: beatrix | April 7, 2008 4:19 PM

A few things to respond to...
"I don't know who "Health Canada" is."
Health Canada is essentially the Canadian version of the FDA (as I stated in my second post). They are the final authority in Canada for approval of the use of products such as rBGH and rBST.


"The prohibition against the use of antibiotics on organic farms is absolutely true, at least here in New York where we farm. We met with New York's organic certification authorities when we were considering "going organic" a few years ago and were given the regulations on this point, which are exactly as I stated above. The prohibition against all use of antibiotics was the primary reason we decided not to do so. Organic milk packages here are clearly labeled "Produced without the use of antibiotics." What, are they lying? Perhaps this is a New York regulation and not a federal one -- that might be the source of our disagreement."

If the New York agency is prohibiting the use of antibiotics after other methods have been used and found ineffective (including but not limited to effective homeopathy, I understand Beatrix belives this to be smoke and mirrors, but there are farms that use homeopathic treatments quite effectively), and antibiotic therapy is rejected simply to preserve the organic status of an animal, a certified entity can lose certification. Treatment cannot be withheld. If an animal is treated, yes, it must be removed from the organic herd and be sold on the conventional market, or to a conventional dairy. The animal cannot be re-converted to organic. The practice of moving cows in and out of organic production is prohibited. Any certifier that is either A) telling farms they may NEVER use an antibiotic, without letting them know the full text of the NOP regarding withholding treatment; or is B)allowing a farm to rotate livestock in and out of organic status should be reported to the USDA National Organic Program for violations of the National Organic Program. The NOP is a floor and a ceiling...no state may legally require more stringent standards of production for organic farms.

"they can't see that the milk marketers ALSO have a profit motive and benefit from lying." I fail to see how someone who wishes to label their milk "From cows that are not treated with synthetic growth hormones" is lying. That is a factual statement for all organic, and many conventional farms (and yes, I know several conventional dairy farmers as well, as well as goat milk farmers). Either the animals are or aren't treated with rBST or rBGH. Either they are or they aren't being given regular low-level antibiotic treatments to supress disease. Those are facts. They aren't supposition. Long term effects on both cows and humans treated with synthetic growth hormones are exactly that...supposition. There isn't evidence one way or the other. These products were released for general public consumption prior to any long term (5-year plus) testing being done. So, there could be health risks over the long term. There could be no risks at all. My concern is that these materials were released without these tests having been done. So, I want to choose milk that clearly does not have synthetic growth hormones, because I want to be able to choose to NOT be a guinea pig for Monsanto. By prohibiting producers from making a simple factual label claim (From cows NOT treated with synthetic growth hormones RIGHT ON THE LABEL), the government is removing my right to choose a product I want. And I have a problem with THAT.

Beatrix, 50 years from now, we can maybe find out that both of these products are totally benign, that you were right all along, and that there's some other unknown bug-a-boo out there that'll turn us all into 4-eyed flipper-walkin' 3-foot tall blue people. Who knows? All I know right now that I want to be able to choose milk that is from animals that have not received these substances. And there's very few ways to do that. One is buy organic. The other is look for labels on milk that is otherwise conventionally produced but does not use growth hormones or antibiotics. I still often purchase milk from a local dairy that follows just those practices. And if that dairyman wants to label his milk accurately as having not used these products, I think he should be allowed to, and the government should not be allowed to take away his right to label his product truthfully.

Posted by: Organic Gal | April 7, 2008 11:02 PM

The part you are missing in the organic regulations is that the organic farmer does not have to treat or sell or remove the cow that needs antibiotics until "methods acceptable to organic production fail." That can be weeks. (I do know organic farmers -- I am not just making this stuff up.) I am not suggesting that organic farmers want their animals to suffer. Of course they don't, and most of them find one way or another around this rule so that they can take proper care of their animals. But the rule itself is simply stupid. Farmers should not be forced to choose between their animals' health and comfort and their "certification" when there is no risk whatsoever to the quality of the milk in properly administering a reasonable medical treatment.

As for the labeling: if all that milk marketers wanted to put on their packages is "This milk comes from cows not treated with rBST," I'd have no problem. I would like to see some fine print elsewhere on the package that advises the consumer that there is no known difference between milk from cows treated with rBST and milk from cows that aren't, but simple facts are fine with me.

What enrages me are labels like this one, which I see daily on milk containers in my local grocery from a supposedly oh-so-ethical organic marketer: "No antibiotics, no synthetic growth hormones." Okay, it's not precisely a lie -- there are no antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones inside the package. However, it is an implied lie about all the other milk on the shelves. Any consumer reading the label would naturally conclude -- and it's obvious that many of them do -- that there are antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones in everybody else's milk. THAT's the kind of cynical, manipulative dishonesty that infuriates me. Such producers are making money on deception, and they have had great success. Ask around among your friends -- how many of them believe that antibiotics are in store milk? How many of them believe that dangerous synthetic hormones are in store milk? All of them have been taken in by liars like this one.

If Monsanto should be held to a truth-in-labeling requirement -- and of course they should, as should every business in this country -- why shouldn't organic and boutique marketers be held to the same demands? Why are they afraid to tell the truth about the (lack of) differences between their product and everyone else's? Because they know darn well that many people wouldn't pay extra for their milk if they realized it's exactly like all the other, cheaper milk, that's why. They should be required to tell the same truth that Monsanto is.

The same thing goes for claims about humane animal treatment, access to grass, support for small family farmers, and blah blah blah that you will find elsewhere on such packages. OrganicGal, you are obviously very knowledgeable on these issues, so you probably saw the press a year or two ago about the organic dairy run by Horizon out in Idaho with 4000 cows in a confinement facility whose "access to pasture" consisted of being turned out into a dirt paddock for a few minutes each day. (No 4000-cow farm can truly provide access to pasture -- you couldn't keep enough grass growing within walking distance of the barn for all of those cows.) People paid extra for their milk thinking it came from happier, healthier cows than the stuff in the conventional packages. It was just marketing flimflam. Horizon did not change this until it was exposed in the national press. My point is that just because somebody is organic or otherwise alternative, they are not necessarily honest or ethical and consumers should not assume that they are any less profit-motivated or likely to be deceptive than anybody else.

Of course you're right that we don't know now what science will know 50 years from now. But there are a lot of current risks that we do know quite a bit about that we don't get nearly as upset about as the speculative risks of giving rBST to cows. (and as for that, what about the very real risk of harm to the same cows of making them wait weeks for medical treatment while their udders swell up, ooze blood and pus, and sustain permanent damage! All of a sudden we're not so worried about those poor cows after all . . .) Check into the statistics on your risk of death from driving or riding your bike to the grocery store to pick up your organic milk. We don't have to wait 50 years to find out how dangerous that is -- but everybody keeps right on doing it.

In my opinion, it's not the very-slight chance that rBST may prove to harm cows or people some day that really worries people -- it's the mystery of the unknown, and a failure to understand the nature of risk and the way science works. It's too bad. But by all means, buy whatever milk you choose. Of course your local dairyman should be able to label his milk honestly. I just wish that the big organic producers he might be selling some of it to would do the same thing, that's all.

Posted by: Beatrix | April 8, 2008 7:44 AM

OK, where I grew up (Vermont) there were a good number of conventional dairy farms that opted not to use rBGH, either due to the farmer's own personal concerns or because he/she knew consumers were concerned and rBGH-free milk would therefore sell. Opting out of use of this one hormone didn't make them organic farms (among other things, cows could be treated with antibiotics). Is there no possibility of a middle ground here?

Posted by: gmg22 | April 8, 2008 11:56 AM

"Either they are or they aren't being given regular low-level antibiotic treatments to supress disease. Those are facts."

Here I go again. Just spotted this in OrganicGal's earlier post. You have been misled if you believe that any lactating dairy animals are ever given "regular low-level antibiotic treatments to suppress disease." As I've already explained, they aren't, ever, by anybody. That's the fact. Please stop contributing to the ongoing deception of ordinary consumers on this point.

Posted by: Beatrix | April 8, 2008 12:23 PM

One more. To be clear, in case anybody out there doesn't know what "lactating" means: no cow that is giving milk will ever be given prophylactic antibiotics (that is, low levels intended to suppress disease rather than treat existing disease.) Very young calves get them sometimes, for the reason I already explained. Dry cows -- that is, a cow ending her lactation that won't be milked again for a couple of months until her next cow is born -- also sometimes get them. Cows producing milk do not get prophylactic antibiotics. Ever.

Posted by: Anonymous | April 8, 2008 12:30 PM

gmg22 asked "Is there no possibility of a middle ground here?"

Oh, there definitely is, gmg22. The industry seems to be heading for milk produced without rBST (or rBGH, it's the same thing.) More and more grocery chains are pressing their suppliers, who are in turn pressing farmers, to stop using rBGH because of consumer demand. As a result, it's getting easier and easier to find milk on grocery shelves that carries a label something like "Produced without rBGH" or "Produced without synthetic hormones." You're right -- this milk is not otherwise organic, antibiotics are still used (when needed only!) and all that. All of the milk, however, regardless of claims on the label as to whether rBGH was used or not, is identical.

This isn't really so bad -- rBGH is just one tool among many that helps struggling farmers stay afloat. Losing it probably won't sink anybody -- it just makes the swimming a little bit tougher. What bothers me is not so much having to stop using rBGH. What bothers me is that, like the antibiotics rule for organic farmers, the change is not based on any true risk to the food supply or to human health, but on fear and suspicion spread by those with an ax to grind -- and with money to make on frightened people who don't have enough access to the facts. Even if all farmers drop rBGH, many people will still feel worried about dairy products, and there's no reason for it.

I want to apologize for dominating these comments so thoroughly. I know it's bad manners. But farmers are so cut off from the larger American society. We are a tiny minority and most people in cities and suburbs have very little opportunity to understand our work. It's rare to have a chance to talk to non-farm people who are truly interested, and to tell you about what we really do, instead of what the anti-farmer propagandists want you to think that we do. Thanks for listening.

Posted by: beatrix | April 9, 2008 7:37 AM

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