Misleading labeling? Or just a free market?

Some have cheered, others have sneered. But by now you’ve probably heard about the whole Starbucks-going-rBGH-free thing. It’s an important story, because Starbucks is not just a market leader, they are also symbolic of all the companies that are now choosing rBGH-free dairy products.

Maybe by now you’ve noticed that when you buy a carton of Stonyfield Farm yogurt (or, okay, maybe Ben and Jerry’s), you see a statement about their dairy farmers not using rBGH, followed by a statement like:

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

Those things are the result of a fragile peace that exists around rBGH…a peace that may be about to come to a screeching halt.

But wait, you say. Before you go any further…what is rBGH? Here’s my quick, 3 sentence summary:

1. rBGH is also called rBST, which goes by the brand name POSILAC®, and is made by corporate giant Monsanto.
2. It’s a recombinant (synthetic) version of recombinant bovine somatotropin, a.k.a. bovine growth hormone, which is something that occurs naturally in milk.
3. Some dairy farmers give it to cows to increase their milk production.

What can’t be summed up in 3 sentences is the controversy surrounding the stuff. It’s incredibly, dizzingly controversial. Folks on the “pro” side claim that there’s no scientific difference between milk from cows that have been treated with rBGH and those that haven’t, and that anyone who claims otherwise is either a fool or a fearmonger. Those who don’t like it claim that it’s bad for the cows, it can lead indirectly to antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and that it might even increase rates of cancer. There’s a ton of history and data here, and sifting through it all is the subject for an entire blog in itself. You can get started by reading this Wikipedia post (note that its neutrality is “in dispute,” although I don’t think it seems extreme either way). Things that strike me as I think about all this:

- rBGH can increase milk production by an average of more than 10%. If you’re examining simply the cost of milk, this increased production might be good for consumers (although critics might argue that there are hidden costs, i.e. more antibiotic resistance). But does increased production mean more money for dairy farmers? Promotions like these suggest so. Adam Smith — remember him? of the law o’ supply and demand? — would probably beg to differ, as would others.

- A Canadian meta-analysis showed some harmful effects to the cows from use of the rBGH: among them an increase in mastitis among cows treated, and a likely increase risk of lameness and a shorter life span. Farmers treat mastitis with antibiotics, which is where concerns about antibiotic resistance comes in (the antibiotics do not enter the milk itself).

- Apparently Monsanto’s own data shows that use of the stuff appears to raise the amount of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1) in milk, which may increase twinning in humans, and may increase risks of cancer. Or maybe not.

- Although it’s approved in the U.S. (where Monsanto is based, and where they spent $22 million in lobbying between 1998 and 2004), it is banned in Canada, all countries in the European Union, Australia, and New Zealand.

Which brings me to those labels, the ones that basically say “our farmers don’t use the stuff, but the FDA says there’s no difference.” Those labels are there, because in 2003, a Maine dairy farmer, Oakhurst, labeled their milk with the statement “Our pledge: no artificial growth hormones.” Monsanto sued the company, which many claimed was a warning to any other dairy who wanted to label their products the same way, and which Monsanto said was simply to protect consumers from misleading labeling. Tons of sites give this history of this epic battle. Anyhow, that’s how those seemingly illogical labels started appearing on milk and yogurt containers. Which seemed to satisfy everyone…

…Until now.

Recently, Monsanto filed a press release that signaled a new letter campaign to convince the FDA to dis-allow current labeling practices. The Organic Consumers Association responded by saying that Monsanto had declared war.

What do I think of all this hullabaloo? Well, it won’t surprise many of you that I’m for knowing as much as possible about what we eat, and how it came to be. Plus, Monsanto’s interest in the labeling issue just seems a little, umm, vested. And some of the highest profile folks on the no-labeling side? Lots of them receive funding from Monsanto. Oh, yeah – and since the FDA official who was in charge of rBGH labeling issues was none other than Michael R. Taylor — who previously worked as a lawyer for Monsanto…and then went BACK to work for Monsanto after he wrote the FDA labeling policy — the whole thing just seems a little…umm…unsavory.

All that said, is it possible I just don’t understand the science? Sure. So let’s go with that for a moment. Let’s just say that my preference for rBGH-free dairy comes only because I’ve been fooled by activist groups. Let’s just say for a moment that I am a weak, silly person who has been manipulated by fearmongers into spending more money on something that makes no difference. I’m not proud, so okay — let’s just say that.

Here’s the thing (and here, folks, is where my rant begins): It seems like I should have the right to make this choice anyway. This is, after all, a private transaction. I’m an adult. I’m using my own money. Starbucks, or Stonyfield Farms, or Safeway, or Ben, or Jerry, is telling me something factual (fact: “our dairy farmers pledge not to use a product.”), and I choose to buy it, or I don’t. They’re telling me how they run their business, and I’m choosing how to spend my money.

Don’t I have the right to spend my money sucking down 6 liters of sweetened soda daily if I choose (even though doing so could turn me into an overweight diabetic)? Sure. Then surely I have the right to spend my money on whatever yogurt I choose for whatever reason satisfies me. Even if someone says it’s overpriced. Even if someone says it’s foolish.

That’s a free market. A real free market. Not a “we-don’t-like-what-people-are-choosing-in-this-free-market-so-we-spend-millions-and-lobby-the-government-to-’protect’-people-from-themselves” market. Thanks for trying to protect me from myself, guys. I know you think I’m silly, maybe even pretty dumb. So thanks, I appreciate your interest, but…umm…no thanks.

(though, Monsanto, if you really want to protect my family from unscrupulous marketing, you could have gotten involved in the “7-Up is All-Natural” issue. You could still jump into the Enviga fray. Or, hey: How about you work on keeping candy/soda/snack/sugar cereal manufacturers from marketing directly to my young children? After all, I’m an adult. They’re not. And I could use some help with that, I really could — particularly from such a powerful ally as yourself. Just a suggestion, in case you’re looking for other ways to help).

Anyway, that is my free market rant for the day. I’d give you a recipe, but since Thursday’s little electrical fire, I can’t even boil water in my kitchen. It’s all takeout soup from the co-op and microwaved frozen meals in these parts. Those things, and an occasional rant.

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18 Responses to “Misleading labeling? Or just a free market?”

  1. 1 Lynne Eldridge M.D. April 10, 2007 at 3:15 am

    I LOVE your comments! We struggled with this issue ad nauseum as we wrote a book about cancer prevention. At the end, we came to a simple, non-scientific conclusion. If milk from cows treated with BST has never been allowed in the European Union or Canada, and has been banned in Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, would we really feel comfortable as parents giving it to our kids? I don’t think so. In addition, part of being a parent is training children to be kind to animals. Germany does not allow cows to be treated with BST because it raises the risk of mastitis. In their code of ethics, German veterinarians agree not to intentionally do anything that could inflict harm on animals and therefore the use of BST is unethical. I want my children to know that ethics are important, whether it is animals or people!

    Lynne Eldridge M.D.
    Co-Author, “Avoiding Cancer One Day At A Time: Practical Advice for Preventing Cancer”

  2. 2 Amy April 10, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Ali, thanks for catching me up. When I did the grocery shopping and Cate was a wee one I splurged for the organic milk. I never really knew why, except at a gut level, it just felt better. Now that DH does the shopping and is far more skeptical, we’ve gone back to the regular milk, but consume far less of it. I still get the Stonyfield yogurt though.

  3. 3 Fairly Odd Mother April 10, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    I’m with you on this one. Let ME decide if an artificial growth hormone is safe or not for my family to drink. I very highly doubt that Monsanto is all that interested in families who want to live a chemically-free life! LOL

    And, just a thought, but I can foresee a day when they market this to breastfeeding moms who are having a supply problem. Hmmmm. . .

  4. 4 livegreener April 10, 2007 at 4:07 pm

    OK, I’m Canadian… so i don’t have to personally make this decision (although I always buy organic, regardless). However, I do think that YOU should have the freedom to choose what products you buy or don’t buy no matter what the reasoning. And, just so everyone is aware of who is fighting this particular battle… here is a link to some information about Monsanto concerning this and other issues with which it is involved: http://www.organicconsumers.org/monlink.cfm
    Issues such as genetically modified produce, forced pesticide use, and less than savoury business practices, etc. Scroll down the page to get a sense of what sorts of things this company is involved in, and then decide if they are a company worth trusting or not.

  5. 5 Kai April 10, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    I second Fairly Odd Mother, I’d like to be the one making decisions about what I eat, not huge money-loving corporations.

    Does this mean I can feel less guilty about my Starbucks addiction?? :)

  6. 6 frugalmom April 10, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Here, Here. I agree. We made the switch to Oberweis milk several months ago. Just for that reason. We do not want the kids exposed to that anymore than they have to be. The main reason it took us so long to switch was by far the increase in cost. It can be a pretty big jump in the budget when you have a family of five and you all love dairy products! So, aside from it not having the extra chemicals…it just tastes better. Plain and simple.

  7. 7 pnuts mama April 10, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    amen sister!

    let me choose what i put into my body, please. i could go on and on on my own little rant but i’ll spare you and instead go fill out our application for our CSA this summer!

  8. 8 Shaping Youth April 10, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    Completely agree we should all be allowed to ingest whatever we want, even if it’s crud. Since label literacy is key to making an informed choice, I’ll add this link from Ca. Consumers Union to take action on this issue. https://secure.npsite.org/cu/site/Advocacy?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=1525
    I realize Ca. is only one state, but global precedent applies here, we’ve gotta know what’s in the stuff objectively before we can choose to pass or purchase! Thanks for the post. Good one.

  9. 9 boogiemum April 10, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    Well put, Ali. I couldn’t agree with you more. It really scares me that more and more, things are getting ok’d to not be labeled with their ingred or how they were produced. I don’t understand why places like Mc D’s have to put on their coffee to have caution b/c its hot, but its up for debate on whether cloned meat should be labeled. Thank you for bringing this to our attention!

  10. 10 Meredith April 11, 2007 at 4:01 am

    I agree Ali. While I don’t go organic (it’s $7 a gallon in NYC), I do make a point, even if it means going to another store, to buy hormone-free milk. A subject that has intrigued me for awhile now…GREAT post.

  11. 11 Kristin Nicholas April 11, 2007 at 6:58 pm

    The whole situation is difficult for consumers. We buy “Our Family Farms” milk in western Mass which is rGBH free. But when I send my daughter to public school, where she has 2 glasses a day, the school uses whatever the government sends them. I know it is the cheapest and therefore not rGBH free. Most cheese made in the States is also made with milk with hormones. I try to buy from smaller cheese makers who probably are not using milk with hormones but most cheese at the grocery store isn’t from Europe or Canada. It’s difficult to stay completely away from it because milk is added to all kinds of other products.

    The best I can do for my daughter is give her the non-treated milk at home and feed her healthy foods.

  12. 12 OMSH April 12, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    This whole argument parallels the pharmaceutical companies’ involvement with encouraging/backing research about the necessity for mandatory vaccinations of non-bovines, as in – our kids.

    I’m a bit miffed right now as I have to give my child the varicella vacc if I want him in preschool next year. REQUIRED. No opting out.


    So, what would happen if I had a statement put on milk cartons that said, “Humans are the only animal that drinks milk one it is weaned?” Would that stir up a lawsuit as well?

    Don’t answer that. Uggh.

  13. 13 pnuts mama April 12, 2007 at 9:26 pm

    ali, just wanted to let you know they are doing a story on this on the national news on abc with charlie gibson at 6:30 tonight.

    also, meredith from nyc, depending on where you are in nyc, we get organic milk a bit cheaper than 7 bucks a gallon at target (3.29 1/2 gal) or bjs or even waldbaums. stonyfield farms also has coupons online if you don’t own a mac (ARGH!). we went organic for the taste (delish) and the lack of all things nasty found in dairy fat, which ends up being stored in your fat (yum) and haven’t looked back at the price, just gave up other stuff instead, sorta.

    also, ali- wanted to let you know we tried the irish cut oatmeal (ok, my husband and daughter tried it, i am not such an oatmeal girl unless it is in a cookie) and they raved! my husband may have a small crush on you now!!

  14. 14 cleanerplateclub April 13, 2007 at 1:24 am

    Great comments, all of them. Each one makes me want to raise my fist in the air and shout “right on! Power to the people!” – and then to turn to Monsanto and say something like “oh, no you DI-n’t!” while snapping my fingers like a sassy hipster.

    (and, hey, everyone? Kristin above? She knits and stitches and has her own line of yarn and colorful books. I know this, because I once wrote copy for her publisher about one of her books – such a delightful surprise to find her commenting here. Check out her site, because what she does makes me wish that I knit instead of obsessing about food. Her designs are colorful and stunning. Seriously. They’re just. So. Cute.)

    Pnuts – You know, I know my hubby loves me, but it has been a long time since anyone has had a “crush” on me! The very idea makes me want to post a video of myself shaking my groove-thang while cooking up oats! Except, you know. I probably can’t do that using dial up.

  15. 15 tongue in cheek April 23, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    I grew up on a dairy farm.
    I agree that cows should not be injected with hormones.
    I remember when this program started.
    Nobody outside of the farming community seem to “moo” about it…it happened..years and years worht.

    And the issue is deeper.

    Small farmers consider farming a lifestyle a vocation.
    Large farmers are for business.

    I need to stop…drink wholesome, support small farmer!

  1. 1 Except for that whole health, thing, Dr. Miller… « The Cleaner Plate Club Trackback on June 29, 2007 at 3:40 pm
  2. 2 My first boss, and what she had in common with a cloned cow…or a mad one « The Cleaner Plate Club Trackback on January 24, 2008 at 2:38 pm
  3. 3 How to run a business in 10 steps: lessons from Monsanto’s failed rBGH business « The Cleaner Plate Club Trackback on August 7, 2008 at 2:48 am
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