BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – The label on many milk cartons sold throughout Western New York alerts buyers that the milk does not contain a growth hormone.
Why the label appears is a window into an ongoing debate on the use of growth hormones in milk.
The label usually comes with a disclaimer stating there is no significant difference between milk produced with or without artificial growth hormones.
Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH) (also known as recombinant bovine somatotropin, rbST, or Sometribove) is arguably the most widely known hormone associated with dairy foods.
It has been used in the U.S. dairy industry since 1994.
Growth hormone (GH) is a protein hormone produced in the pituitary gland of animals including humans and is essential for normal growth, development, and health maintenance.
The synthetic version is used in some cases to help a cow produce more milk.
Ron Mammoser, the operator of organic and conventional dairy farms in western New York says it’s something that he doesn’t use in either dairy operation.
“It was something that everybody was doing at one point to stay in competition,” said Mammoser. “We found out it doesn’t really matter that much anymore. It’s not missed at all.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the synthetic version of bovine growth hormone in 1993 following extensive review of the data to support the safety and effectiveness of the product
The agency determined that “food products from cows treated with rbGH are safe for consumption by humans.”
The FDA also states that there are “no new scientific concerns regarding the safety of milk from cows treated with rbGH.”
Kathryn Boor, dean of Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, says there’s no difference in the composition of the milk.
“At this point there is no evidence that there’s harm to consumers from the consumption of milk where either the milk has the naturally produced by the cow, bovine growth hormone, or whether there’s external bovine growth hormone that is being used by the farmer,” said Boor.
Still, it’s not approved for use in some countries. And critics, like Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch, a Washington, D.C. based consumer rights group, continue to question it’s safety.
“If you ask consumers about it they’re justifiably not comfortable with it,” said Lovera. “Once it gets approved we don’t really go look anymore to see if there’s any negative health effects.”
Elanco, which manufactures the only rbST product (Posilac) approved by the FDA for use in the U.S., said in response that the product is safe and approved for commercial use in more than 20 countries.
“There are continuing efforts to expand the use/registration of rbST in countries that must meet their country and/or global demand for more dairy products,” Elanco said in a statement to News 4.
The company states that there are no restrictions from major dairy importing countries to accept products that are sourced from herds that are supplemented with rbST, including the European Union.
Sheila Mangino, who News 4 caught up with at the milk aisle in a Wegmans store, expressed concerns.
“I worry about the hormones and the stuff that they give cows,” said Mangino.
Rhonda Stone is another Wegmans shopper who worries.
“As long as there’s no growth hormones in it then I’m fine with it,” said Stone.
One criticism involves studies that have shown that milk from rbGH treated cows slightly increases insulin-like growth factor, also known as IGF-1.
Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch says there are concerns about higher levels of IGF-1 in milk.
“There are a few papers that talk about it. The potential link to a couple of types of cancers including breast cancer and I believe prostate cancer,” said Lovera. “So, that’s the piece that should be studied more, and we’re not aware of anybody being funded to study that.”
While the American Cancer Society has no formal position regarding rbGH, it does provide a summary of the available evidence on its website.
ACS states that the evidence for potential harm to humans is inconclusive, and that it’s “not clear that drinking milk produced using rbGH significantly increases IGF-1 levels in humans or adds to the risk of developing cancer.”
Mark O’Brian, a professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo, says only some studies show that there’s more IGF in hormone treated cows.
“Even if you take the worst case scenario where they saw some differences. The differences that they found are less than one-tenth of 1% of the amount of IGF that are body normally produces and secretes into our gastrointestinal tract,” said O’Brian. “That would be less than the normal variation in a day if you weren’t drinking any milk at all.”
O’Brian says based on that he thinks there’s little concern that IGF levels found to be elevated in some studies is anything to worry about.
“There’s more IGF in human breast milk than in cow’s milk, whether the cow’s are treated with growth hormone or not,” he said. “The science around growth hormone supports that it is safe.”
More research is needed, the American Cancer Society states, to better address those concerns.
Early studies found a relationship between blood levels of IGF-1 and colorectal, prostate and breast cancers, although later studies either have not confirmed these findings or have found weaker relationships, according to ACS.
“The amount of IGF-1 absorbed by the intestine is minuscule when compared to the amount produced by the human body every day,” said Elanco representative Susan K. Miller. “Therefore, the amount of IGF-1 in milk — either from cows with or without rbST supplementation — does not cause any measurable change in the amount of IGF-1 that is present in a normal healthy adult.”
You have probably seen milk cartons labeled no artificial growth hormones. Some consumers are demanding it and some dairy producers, like Ron Mammoser, are listening.
“It scared people, and maybe for good reasons. It didn’t make people comfortable, and we’re just trying to make people comfortable with buying our product and knowing our milk is safe,” said Mammoser.
The label says what’s not in the milk.
“At the end of the day if you are looking to avoid something at least it tells you that it’s not there. And that’s something,” said Food & Water Watch’s Patty Lovera.
Kathryn Boor of Cornell University argues that it’s important to understand that the milk products are not different from a compositional perspective.
“In terms of the labeling it enables people to make a choice. That’s really what it’s all about,” said Boor.
According to Elanco, global dairy demand is outpacing supply.
“While productivity has grown, per capita availability has actually declined 14%,” the company states. “We can tell you that the trend for rbST use both within the U.S. and for global markets (new and existing) has increased over the last 10 years and will continue. This is largely due to the global need for more milk production.”