RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #483
February 29, 1996
IS BGH IN TROUBLE?
IS BGH IN TROUBLE?
The Monsanto corporation's genetically-engineered hormone, rBGH,
seems to be in trouble. The product is marketed to dairy farmers
for injection into their cows to boost milk production about 10%,
but a survey of farmers last summer indicated that enthusiasm for
the product remains low. And last month a new peer-reviewed
medical study argued that rBGH may promote cancer of the breast
and colon in humans who drink milk from rBGH-treated cows.
Monsanto has bet the future of the company on genetic
engineering, and rBGH is the company's first, showcase biotech
Monsanto has refused to release any rBGH sales figures since
The hormone, which Monsanto sells under the trade name Posilac,
and which is also known as BST or BGH or rBGH, has been bitterly
opposed by consumer groups on grounds that (a) its effects on
humans are not known, but may well be negative; (b) it is not
good for cows; (c) it is not needed because the U.S. already
produces far more milk than it can consume and taxpayers
presently have to foot the bill for purchasing and dumping this
excess milk; and (d) there are better, non-chemical alternatives
for increasing milk production, if that is a particular farmer's
goal. (See REHW #381-384.)
Monsanto's Posilac is a genetically-engineered hormone, known as
'recombinant bovine growth hormone,' or rBGH. Monsanto some
years ago renamed it bovine somatotropin, or BST, thus avoiding
use of the word "hormone" in public discussions. With inside
help from a former Monsanto consultant who went to work for the
federal government, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA)
approved rBGH for sale in November, 1993 and the product went on
the market in early 1994. (See REHW #382.)
When grocery stores began labeling certain milk as rBGH-free, as
a help to their customers who might want to avoid purchasing milk
from cows injected with the drug, Monsanto sued to prevent such
labeling. Those lawsuits were Monsanto's home-grown variant of
the "banana laws" that the food industry has been successfully
promoting nationwide, to prevent food-safety advocates from
speaking out about potential dangers of chemically-treated foods.
(See REHW #481.) However Monsanto lost --or abandoned --all the
labeling lawsuits, so labeling milk as rBGH-free is now
permitted. The federal FDA, however, has refused to require
labeling of milk from rBGH-treated cows.
An important California newspaper, the FRESNO BEE, reported late
last year that farmers in California --the largest dairy state
--are treating rBGH like a dirty secret: no one wants to talk
about it, and no one wants to admit using it.
Barbara de Lollis, a BEE staff reporter, said Monsanto claims to
have sold 14.5 million injections between February, 1994 and
January, 1995, reaching almost 30% of the dairy herds in the
nation. But then the company stopped releasing sales figures.
Ms. de Lollis conducted interviews across California and reported
that "an eery silence exists in dairy circles today regarding BST
"It's too controversial," said Jim Deaver, head of California
State University, Fresno's dairy unit, where they inject their
herds with rBGH. "He refused to say more," Ms. de Lollis
"Some are embarrassed to talk about it," said Loren Lopes, a
Turlock, California producer who milks 300 cows without rBGH.
Farmers usually share their success or failure stories when an
important new product comes along, but not this time. "They're
keeping this hidden. They don't want people to know they're using
it," Mr. Lopes told Ms. de Lollis.
Mr. Lopes said he has heard of farmers who store their Posilac in
an out-of-sight cabinet or in their home. Some farmers inject
their cows themselves after the hired hands go home.
Farmers order rBGH straight from Monsanto and sometimes they have
that unmistakable blue-and-orange FedEx truck deliver rBGH to
their feed supplier instead of to their farm, so their neighbors
won't know they're using the controversial hormone, according to
Mark Kastel, a researcher with the Wisconsin Farmers Union. The
Union recently released an anecdotal report citing animal health
problems tied to the drug.
A survey published last October in DAIRY TODAY, a respected
midwestern farm journal, said 20 percent of U.S. farmers have
tried rBGH. But opposition appears to be hardening among
farmers, according to the survey firm, Rockwood Research. Among
farmers who hadn't used rBGH, 87 percent said they would never
Rockwood interviewed 400 farmers in 21 states during the summer
of 1995. One-fifth of the farmers lived in Wisconsin, the state
with the strongest anti-rBGH sentiment.
The survey says the main reasons for avoiding rBGH are:
philosophical opposition (34 percent); fear that the drug harms
cows (23 percent) and concern that rBGH won't improve profits (17
Of farmers who have tried the drug, 40 percent have since given
Of 30 farmers who used rBGH and then stopped, 16 said the drug
didn't improve profits, 10 said it caused health problems and
four said rBGH required too much time to manage, the survey
The survey noted that farmers with larger herds are more willing
to use rBGH. For example, 34 percent of farmers with herds of 250
cows or more tried rBGH, but only 11 percent with herds between
40 and 99 cows used the milk-stimulating hormone.
Even in California, which is the original home of the large,
technologically sophisticated dairy farm, rBGH usage was down at
the end of 1995, according to two agricultural economists who
track California's dairy industry --Leslie Butler from University
of California at Davis and Vernon Crowder with Bank of America.
Ms. Butler blamed the decline on the "cost-price squeeze." Cows
eat more feed when they're on rBGH and feed prices are sky-high
right now. Mr. Crowder blamed bad weather: rBGH would add more
stress to cows already affected by heavy rains earlier in the
Dr. Charles Holmberg, a pathologist at the Tulare (California)
Veterinary Medicine Center, noticed another trend: Dairy farmers,
fearful of reproduction problems in cows, are using rBGH on a
more limited basis instead of on their whole herd.
Jerry Steiner, who directs Monsanto's U.S. marketing efforts for
rBGH, said the DAIRY TODAY survey didn't explore changes in the
dairy industry that Monsanto believes will improve sales or rBGH.
Monsanto's research shows that 30 percent to 40 percent of dairy
farmers plan to leave the industry within five years, Mr. Steiner
said. "A lot of older dairymen will retire," he said. "A new
generation of dairymen have different views."
Many older farmers believe their cows are more than mere milk
factories to be used up and discarded. Injecting rBGH reduces a
cow's life expectancy and increases her risk of disease.
Normally for about 12 weeks after a cow calves, she produces milk
at the expense of her own tissues. She loses weight, she is
infertile, and she is more susceptible to diseases such as
mastitis (inflammation of the udder). Eventually her milk output
diminishes, her food intake catches up, and she begins to rebuild
her body. By injecting rBGH, a farmer can postpone for another 8
to 12 weeks the time when the cow begins rebuilding her body.
This means that the cow is stressed for another 8 to 12 weeks and
is more susceptible to infection during that period. This takes
its toll on the animal.
Veterinarians are not supposed to sanction harmful treatment of
animals. However, U.S. veterinarians have not taken a stand
against the use of rBGH. In Germany, however, veterinarians
formally oppose rBGH because of its ill effects on treated cows.
German veterinarians take the position that use of rBGH violates
their code of ethics.
Ethics is not Monsanto's primary concern. Jerry Steiner said he
expects "significant growth" in doses sold this calendar year.
"Significant" means an increase of 25 percent to 40 percent, he
Without providing numbers, Monsanto also said there has been
"steady growth" in the number of rBGH-treated cows and in the
percentage of cows within herds receiving the drug.
However, last October, shortly after the DAIRY TODAY survey was
released, Monsanto began offeringnew discounts to farmers to buy
The discount of up to 10 percent rewards farmers willing to use
the drug on more of their cows, Mr. Steiner says.
The discount plan--for farmers who make a six-month
commitment--was launched in mid-October, 1995. It replaces
another incentive program that gave farmers credits on future
Announcement of the new marketing strategy coincided with the
release of the survey in DAIRY TODAY, showing that farmers'
interest in rBGH is leveling off or even declining, but Monsanto
denies any connection.
Now a new medical study seems certain to diminish rBGH's
prospects even further. Proponents of rBGH acknowledge that milk
from cows treated with rBGH contains increased levels of
insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), though there is disagreement
about the size of the increase. IGF-1 occurs naturally in both
cows and in humans, and the molecule is identical in the two
species.[5,6] Furthermore, IGF-1 is not broken down by
pasteurization. Therefore, IGF-1 ingested in milk from
rBGH-treated cows will likely be biologically active in humans.
(See REHW #454.)
Dr. Samuel S. Epstein at the University of Illinois in Chicago last
month published a paper arguing that IGF-1 from rBGH-treated cows may
well promote cancer of the breast and of the colon in humans who drink
such milk. Epstein pulled no punches: "In short," he wrote, "with the
active complicity of the FDA, the entire nation is currently being
subjected to an experiment involving large-scale adulteration of an age-
old dietary staple by a poorly characterized and unlabeled biotechnology
product. Disturbingly, this experiment benefits only a very small
segment of the agrichemical industry while providing no matching
benefits to consumers. Even more disturbingly, it poses major potential
public health risks for the entire U.S. population," Dr. Epstein wrote.
 Barbara de Lollis, "Barbara de Lollis Column," FRESNO BEE
October 22, 1995, pg. unknown.
 Samuel S. Epstein, "Unlabeled Milk from Cows Treated with
Biosynthetic Growth Hormones: A Case of Regulatory Abdication,"
INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF HEALTH SERVICES Vol. 26, No. 1 (1996),
 Associated Press, "BGH Woes Alleged in Report," WISCONSIN
STATE JOURNAL [Madison, Wisconsin] October 14, 1995, pg. 8B.
 Robert Steyer, "Monsanto offers discounts to dairy farmers,"
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH October 22, 1995, pg. 1.
 T.B. Mepham, "Public health implications of bovine
somatotrophin [sic] use in dairying: discussion paper," JOURNAL
OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF MEDICINE Vol. 85 (December 1992), pgs.
 Judith C. Juskevich and C. Greg Guyer, "Bovine Growth
Hormone: Human Food Safety Evaluation." SCIENCE Vol. 249 (1990),
Descriptor terms: posilac; bgh; igf-1; food safety; milk;
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