Milk: A look at rBGH

Milk: A look at rBGH

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In 1998 Canadian researchers found that cows treated with rBGH were 25% more likely to develop mastitis (infection of the udder), an 18% higher risk of infertility, and an 18% higher risk of exhaustion.

How cows make milk
Cows, like all mammals, produce Bovine Somatotropin (BST), a growth hormone also known as BGH, or bovine growth hormone. This growth hormone, which is produced in the cow's pituitary gland, stimulates milk production. A dairy cow normally produces milk 305 days after giving birth to a calf. With advances in ranching, dairy cows in Vermont produce an average of about 16,800 pounds of milk per year. The amount of milk produced by a cow is proportional to the amount of BST or BGH produced naturally, the size and genetics of the cow, and the amount of feed and water consumed.

How rBGH makes cows give more milk

When genetically modified BGH is injected into a cow (called rBGH), the immediate effect is to artificially discharge a large amount of another powerful growth hormone - IGF-1 (short for growth factor - insulin 1). This second hormone, IGF-1, is what directly stimulates milk production. The cow's body is therefore overstimulated to produce 10-15% more milk. Instead of 16,800 pounds per year, the cow now produces about 19,000 pounds. The Monsanto Corporation manufactures recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) by removing a section of bovine DNA that controls the production of natural BST and combining it with DNA from E. coli bacteria. Large quantities of recombinant BST- from E. coli are incubated in vats and the result - rBGH - is sold in determined doses to farmers. RBGH, marketed by Monsanto under the name Posilac since February 1994, is injected into cows to force them to produce more milk. That is the only purpose. It has no therapeutic benefit for cows or consumers.

RBGH is harmful to cows
In 1998 Canadian researchers found that cows treated with rBGH were 25% more likely to develop mastitis (infection of the udder), an 18% higher risk of infertility and an 18% higher risk of exhaustion. Cows treated with rBGH were 20% more likely to be removed from herds for poor health. According to the same Monsanto in its Posilac trademark, cows injected with rBGH are at greater risk of presenting 20 adverse side effects, many of them serious, such as: udder infections, reduced rates of pregnancy, cystic ovaries, uterine disorders and digestive, ulcers, strains and calluses on the knees. The most common side effect is mastitis. Studies have shown that cows injected with rBGH tend to have more severe and long-lasting mastitis than cows not injected with rBGH.

Sick cows require more antibiotics
An increase in udder infections increases the use of antibiotics in cows. These antibiotics and their residues seep into the milk. These residues can cause allergic reactions in some sensitive individuals and contribute to the growth of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, a still significant problem in human health. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 30 antibiotics for use in cows, but the State Attorney General's Office reported that 50 illegal antibiotics are commonly used. Worse, routine tests performed by the FDA on milk can detect only four types of antibiotics. Bovine antibiotics are sold without a prescription in agricultural warehouses, so there is little control over when and how they are used.

Consequences of rBGH on human health: IGF-1 is really the problem
RBGH does not act directly to stimulate milk production in cows. Rather, rBGH causes the release of IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1), a very powerful natural growth hormone, which stimulates milk production. A number of studies have shown that rBGH-treated cows produce milk with IGF-1 levels two to ten times higher than a normal cow's milk. IGF-1 is also found in humans; human IGF-1 and bovine IGF-1 are chemically identical, which means that milk from cows treated with rBGH contains a high amount of a growth factor that is biologically active in humans. When humans naturally produce IGF-1, this substance is rapidly broken down in our bodies. However, IGF-1 in milk does not break down easily because that reaction is inhibited by the presence of casein (a primary protein in milk). Additionally, the IGF-1 found in treated milk is much more potent than that found in regular milk because the binding to accompanying proteins is weaker.

Relationship of IGF-1 with breast and prostate cancer

A European investigation into the potential effects of rBGH on human health concluded that there is evidence of a relationship between IGF-1 and breast and prostate cancers. The report said: "The relative risk of breast cancer increases with the amount of dairy products consumed ..." These statements are particularly serious when applied to infants. Children drink more milk than adults, and their exposure is higher because they have less body mass that can process the contaminants in milk. Because your bodies, especially your immune and reproductive systems, are still developing, premature growth stimulation is a real concern in the face of sustained IGF-1 ingestions at elevated levels.

Eighteen nations take action against rBGH
The United States is one of the few countries where the use of rBGH is still allowed. All fifteen members of the European Union banned rBGH, as did Australia and New Zealand. In January 1999, Canada banned rBGH due to adverse effects on cow health. Canadians also had unanswered questions regarding long-term effects on human health. In July, the Food Code, the United Nations food safety organization, refused to approve the use of rBGH.

FDA Approval of rBGH: In a Word - Cheeky
There are many questions about the rBGH approval process in the US. Two of the most significant are: The FDA official who signed the approval of rBGH in 1994 is Michael Taylor. Before being employed by the FDA, he worked for a group of attorneys who defended rBGH before the FDA on behalf of Monsanto. Since the passage of rBGH, he has returned to work for Monsanto. Also, the FDA official (Margaret Miller) who shut down the human safety issue and was involved in virtually all major rBGH decisions - including whether a residue test was necessary (which would have led to labeling) - was a former rBGH researcher at Monsanto.

Vermount Public Interest research group.

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Ecological Action

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