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Venti Latte, Hold the Hormones


It used to be just a blurb on the outside of the Ben & Jerry’s container: CONTAINS NO rBGH. But over the last decade, consumer advocates have succeeded in making “hormone-free milk” a part of America’s shopping vocabulary. Now Starbucks has joined the fray: under pressure from consumers, Starbucks announced last week that it would begin using exclusively hormone-free milk at its 5500 company-owned locations.

Starbucks’s decision is consistent with a wave of growing public concern about the safety of rBGH. Despite that hormone-free milk commands a price of $1.50 per gallon more than conventional milk, demand for hormone-free milk is on the rise and, according to the National Milk Producers Federation, shows no sign of abatement. Dean Foods, the nation’s largest milk processor and distributor, has pushed suppliers in fifteen regional markets to stop using the hormones all because of heightened consumer demand at the grocery store and restaurant level.

As Marguerite Copel, spokeswoman for Dean, told a Reuters reporter, “We’re not making any moral judgments,” says Copel, “It is about giving consumers what they want, and there are some consumers who simply do not want artificial growth hormones in their milk.”

Hormones have already been banned in commerical dairies in both Canada and the European Union. However, the FDA maintains that hormone free milk poses no health risks to humans or animals. Accordingly, U.S. dairies have come under fire for labeling milk “hormone-free”, as critics claim that there is no evidence that hormone-free milk is any healthier.

Brief Tutorial on rBGH
How it’s Made.
BGH (also known as bST, bovine somatotropin) is a hormone naturally produced by cows. Four manufacturerers (American Cyanamid, Eli Lilly, Monsanto, and Upjohn) sell synthetic versions of this hormone, which they create by inserting into bacterial DNA the pertinent cow DNA that leads to hormone production. They then culture the hormone-producing bacteria in large quanitities, and farmers inject the bacteria-produced hormone into cows.

What rBGH does.
For about 3 months after calving, a cow naturally produces about 25% more milk than it does thereafter with regular milking. By injecting BGH, a farmer can prolong the period of excess milk production for an additional 2 to 3 months. Milk output per cow remains about 15% higher than normal during this time, whereas feed consumption increases only about 8%. Since the cow is losing more nutrients to milk than it gains in feed, cows who are producing extra milk lose weight and become more susceptible to disease. As a result, hormone injections often come hand-in-hand with antibiotics.

Health Concerns.
Milk from rBGH-treated cows contains higher levels of IGF-1 (Insulin Growth Factor-1), which has been linked to elevated occurrences of colon and breast cancer. The FDA, however, contends that rBGH is safe for cows and humans. In 1994, the FDA prohibited dairies from claiming there was any difference between milk from rBGH-injected cows and milk produced without the artificial hormone.