rBST and Monsanto: Postscript

Categories: News
philg@mit.edu
In light of yesterday's blog entry, I found it interesting to look at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's coverage of Monsanto's request that federal agencies "crack down" on milk producers who make "deceptive" claims regarding the use of rBST, a.k.a. recombinant bovine somatotropin, a.k.a. bovine growth hormone, a.k.a. Posilac.

Readers of Rachel Melcer's Post story would be forgiven if they came away believing Monsanto isn't asking for anything out of the ordinary.

Monsanto provided to regulators several examples of labels and ads it finds objectionable. They run the gamut from a claim by California's Alta Dena Dairy that no rBST "means better health and happier cows," to a label used by Louisiana's Kleinpeter Dairy that links the synthetic hormone's use to premature puberty in children.

As I noted yesterday, Monsanto also objects to claims like

"our cows are not treated with rBST," and "our farmers pledge not to use artificial growth hormones."

You don't even have to read between the lines to realize that Monsanto is taking issue with pretty much any mention of rBST, period.

Nor does Melcer mention the fact that rBST is banned in Europe in Canada. Instead, in closing her story, Melcer lets this paraphrase from Monsanto's letter to the Federal Trade Commission go unchallenged:

"Although milk processors and retailers certainly have the right to inform consumers about the use or non-use of rBST," labels that falsely claim health and safety risks associated with milk from rBST-supplemented cows are misleading, Monsanto said in its letter to the FTC.

Thanks to the Internets, we know that the Post isn't the only newspaper that covered Monsanto's initiative.

A story in the Boston Globe notes that "[s]ome consumers fear the synthetic hormones cause cancer or premature development in children" and that "[s]ome countries have banned the use of such hormones, but primarily because of its effect on cows."

Globe reporter Bruce Mohl also notes that two large local dairies "made the shift [to cows not treated with the artificial growth hormone] last year to better compete against organic milk producers."

In St. Louis, Oberweis Dairy has taken a stand against rBST. It's unclear whether the note the dairy posts on its Web site would pass muster with Monsanto:

BGH Statement

Our customers oppose rBGH Recombinant Growth Hormone. The family farmers who supply our milk have pledged not to treat their cows with rBGH*.

*The FDA states "No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH-treated and non-rBGH treated cows."

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune also covered the flap in yesterday's edition. Reporter Matt McKinney chronicles the development of rBST and calls Monsanto's move "the latest flare-up in a long-running dispute between the agricultural giant, which created the hormone rBST, also known as rBGH, and critics who say milk from cows treated with the hormone may cause breast, colon and prostate cancer in people, and mastitis in cows."

McKinney even tracks down a dissenting voice in the health debate:

...Samuel Epstein, professor emeritus of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, said the scientific record shows a difference in milk from cows treated with rBST.

"There is just overwhelming evidence," said Epstein, who has written a book on the effects of Posilac.

Epstein is chairman and founder of the Cancer Prevention Coalition. But is he a credible source? He's certainly a persistent one. A Nexis database search returns his name in reams of stories about the dangers of rBST and other chemicals. The fact that he's a go-to voice might be an indication of the impact of his research, or it might indicate that he's one of only a handful of people journalists can find to counter a widely accepted view.

(Unless you write for the Post.)

You can visit Epstein's Web site here.

-Tom Finkel

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