rBGH Reconsidered

By Chris Bedford

Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) was the first genetically engineered food product to be sold in the United States. Approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration on November 5, 1994, rBGH has played a significant role in the industrialization of dairy production which has serious implications for animal welfare and poses a serious health threat to consumers. In the last year, new information has come to light on rBGH which raises important questions about the efficacy and the ethics of the FDA approval process itself.

What it does

rBGH, also known as BST (for Bovine Somatotropin) and Posilac (Monsanto's product name), is injected by needle into cows every two weeks to increase individual animal milk production (by weight) from 10 to 15 percent. rBGH can extend lactation periods for up to three times their normal length. The current rBGH record is 1,374 days of milk production during a single lactation.

Bovine growth hormone (BGH) is a normal product of the pituitary gland of cows. rBGH, a synthetic version of BGH, is produced by snipping a piece of cow DNA that carries the code for (r)BGH and inserting it into the DNA of e-coli bacteria.

The unnatural extension of lactation produced by rBGH severely affects the cow by doubling the metabolic stress from the onset of lactation and draining her of needed nutrients, particularly calcium. Use of rBGH also stimulates production of another bovine hormone, Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) by up to 80%. In turn, IGF-1 is secreted into the milk in increased levels.  

The increased stress combined with the presence of IGF-1 increases the frequency of clinical mastitis, a very painful condition of the cow's udder. The warning label on Monsanto's Posilac explicitly states, "Cows injected with Posilac are at increased risk for clinical mastitis." Increased incidence of mastitis, in turn, necessitates increased use of antibiotics which can pass through to the milk. Currently, only four out of 82 commercially used antibiotics are tested for on a regular basis. A Wall Street Journal investigation found 20% of milk tested had illegal antibiotics present. Other studies have found 38% higher levels. These antibiotics can contribute to antibiotic resistance in human consumers.

The increased stress combined with IGF-1, a known human health hazard, is at the center of the new information. The Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approval is based on an assertion that BST and IGF-1 is destroyed by the pasteurization process.

But normal pasteurization heats milk to 168 degrees for 15 seconds to destroy bacteria and other contaminants. The FDA approval study, conducted by a Canadian undergraduate named Paul Groenewegen from Guelph, Canada, cooked the milk for 30 minutes, one hundred and twenty times longer than commercial production practice. According to Groenewegen, only 19% of the rBGH and IGF-1 were destroyed in the FDA study's extended pasteurization process, not the 90% claimed by the agency.

In addition, activist Robert Cohen has uncovered information that suggests that Monsanto's rBGH formula approved and tested by the FDA was different from the one now on the market. If this is true, it makes the entire FDA approval process invalid. Small family dairy farmers, animal welfare activists, environmentalists, consumers and others have focused on this improper approval process in an effort to have Posilac withdrawn from the market.

rBGH in the European Union

In November, 1999, the European Commission adopted a measure that would permanently ban the use of rBGH in Europe. This action, announced by Commissioner David Byrne before a European Parliament hearing on November 24, 1999, represents the final act of a six-year struggle over rBGH use.

On December 20, 1994, the European Commission prohibited the marketing and use of rBGH, also in the European Union until December 31, 1999. The prohibition was enacted to give two EC scientific advisory bodies time to study the impact of rBGH use on animal welfare and public health. One of those committees, the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare, examined the effects of rBGH use on (1) the incidence of mastitis and other disorders in dairy cows and (2) the overall effect of rBGH use on dairy production.

On March 10, 1999, the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare issued a 90-page report that concluded, "BST (rBGH) use causes a substantial increase in levels of foot problems and mastitis and leads to injection site reactions in dairy cows. These conditions, especially the first two, are painful and debilitating, leading to significantly poorer welfare in the treated animals. Therefore from the point of view of animal welfare, including health, the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare is of the opinion that BST should not be used in dairy cows."

Monsanto, with support from the U.S. government, sought to counter these European actions by having the rBGH ban declared an illegal restraint of trade under GATT. But before such a charge could be brought under the treaty, international standards for rBGH use had to be established. On June 30, 1999, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, meeting in Rome, Italy failed to agree on an international standard for the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) for rBGH in milk. This ruling effectively stopped the GATT complaint by the United States and gave a green light to bans on rBGH by individual countries and the European Union.

Right now, rBGH is licensed for use only in Mexico, the United States and South Africa.

--Small family dairy farmers, animal welfare activists, environmentalists, consumers and others have focused on this improper approval process in an effort to have rBGH withdrawn from the market.

Photo, rBGH makes cows extremely susceptible to mastitis infections.  Note the enormously enlarged udder and the cow's depressed demeanor.

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