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The BGH Dilemma: Do We Need More Milk?

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Dairies in the United States are among the most efficient in the world, producing plenty of milk for Americans to buy, for government giveaway programs and for famine reserves, with some left over. Yet the Food and Drug Administration is currently deciding whether or not to approve use of a genetically engineered hormone that increases a cow’s milk production by 5% to 35%.

To many people, this makes no sense.

“Why in my right mind would I use a hormone in my cattle that will increase milk production?” asks Curt Rohland, a dairy farmer in Withee, Wis. and president of the Family Farm Coalition. “Excess milk drives our prices down. We’re already trying to operate at prices that are below our price of production.”

Rohland and other small farmers aren’t the only ones who have concerns about the hormone, which is referred to as BGH (Bovine Growth Hormone) or BST (Bovine Samotrotropin). In a March hearing, the Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, under the aegis of the FDA, met to consider, among other things, an increase in mastitis (inflammation of the udder) shown in cows treated with BGH and the resultant increase in the use of antibiotics, which could produce antibiotic residues in the meat and milk of treated cows.

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The committee concluded that, while there was an increase in mastitis in treated animals (some say as much as 75%), the increased risk to human health due to any increased usage of antibiotics is insignificant and manageable.

But Consumer’s Union, a nonprofit membership organization that publishes the magazine Consumer Reports, says the antibiotic testing covers only four out of more than 80 possible antibiotics.

Anthony Pollina, staff member of Congressman Bernard Sanders (Ind.-Vt.), who is opposed to the use of BGH, agrees. “Milk is inspected,” he says, “But the tests cover a narrow range of antibiotics, leaving the possibility that others may be present.”

In May, another hearing was held before the Food and Veterinary Medicine advisory committees of the FDA to determine whether or not meat, milk and dairy products from BGH-treated cows should be labeled. No conclusion was reached.

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Currently, the only countries that have approved the use of BGH are India, Mexico, Brazil and several countries in the former Eastern Bloc. The European Economic Community and Britain are in the second year of a ban on the use of BGH. Australia does not use BGH. Canada is considering the use of BGH and is currently undergoing a review process. In this country, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maine imposed moritoriums on BGH, though the moritoriums expired in Wisconsin and Minnesota in 1991. (The moritorium in Maine is in place at least until February 1, 1994.)

In addition, 91 companies will not accept dairy products from BGH-treated cattle. Among these are the country’s three major infant formula producers (Ross Laboratories, Mead-Johnson and Wyeth Ayerst), Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Alta-Dena Dairy, Dannon, Yoplait, Borden and Kraft. Supermarket chains including Super Valu Stores, Kroger markets, Vons, Safeway and Giant also have BGH-free policies.

Nicholas Iammartino, director of External Communications for Borden, says the company took an immediate stance when BGH began to be used on test herds several years ago. “BGH was a test material and we’re a conservative company,” he says.

Brian Dowling, public affairs department manager for Safeway, says his company came out against BGH because they didn’t want milk from test herds. “It is a routine quality-control issue,” he says. “We’ve never accepted BGH milk, and our stand hasn’t changed.”

So who does want BGH?

The people who make it, for one. Chemical companies such as Monsanto, American Cyanamid and Eli Lilly are pushing hard for its approval. And they’re not alone. Jeff True is a dairy farmer in Perry, N.Y., who has 350 dairy cattle. He has been testing BGH in his herd for five years.

“In our case,” he says, “It’s a great management tool. We’ve seen no adverse health effects in our cows, and our milk production has increased 12 to 14 pounds per cow per day. We’ve all been drinking it for five years, and we’ve got a lot of little kids in the family who drink it.”

True feels that as milk prices drop, dairy farmers are forced to become more efficient.

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“We’re all trying to produce as much as we can as fast as we can,” he says. “BGH will help make us better managers on our farms.”

“I know there are some farmers using BGH who are getting more production of milk from their cows,” says Rohland, who milks 40 cows and sells their milk to a milk cooperative. “And these are good farmers, they’re very good at what they do. But in their commitment to get the most milk possible from each cow by any means possible, they are not taking the common interest of the dairy farmer into consideration. They’re not looking ahead.”

Rohland’s biggest fear is that if BGH is approved, he’ll find himself off the farm and selling used cars for a living.

“We’d all like to stay the way we are,” True says, “or even the way the good old days were, but the good old days don’t stay around. I’ve got to use whatever is right for me to maximize my income.”

Dairy economics in the United States are already complex. The government sets a floor price for milk of about 91 cents a gallon, which is what it will pay for dairy products in excess of demand. Currently, American farmers produce about 17 billion gallons of milk a year, and Americans consume about 16.5 billion gallons.

The excess milk is purchased in the form of cheese, powdered milk, butter and other dairy products the government can use, and distributed through government programs--from school lunches to food for the military. Half of the money the government spends on excess dairy products comes from the penny-per-gallon assessment farmers pay on their production.

“In essence, the dairy farmer is supporting these government programs,” says Rohland. “If the excess milk goes over 7 billion pounds per year, there will be a super-assessment applied to the dairy farmer so the government can afford to buy up that excess.”

According to dairy farmer Walter Kawecki, who milks 35 cows in Alburg, Vt., the government’s floor price acts as a magnet.

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“Processors have figured out how to get the price of milk as close to that floor price as possible and still make a profit,” he says. “Because of that, our price for milk remains low and there’s not much we can do about it. If more milk is put on the market, we don’t have any reason to believe prices will do anything but drop.”

Rohland agrees. “The price paid to dairy farmers for raw product--milk--always trends toward the lowest possible price, which is the federal support price,” he says. “With BGH we will see the price to the farmer drop, while the price to the consumer stays the same.”

Like Rohland and Kawecki, many small dairy farmers feel that BGH will benefit larger farmers and processors and drive small farms out of business. They are concerned that increased milk production may cause a repeat of what happened in 1986 and 1987, when 14,000 dairy farmers went out of business after the government’s Dairy Termination Program paid farmers to give up dairying so milk supplies could be lowered.

“This is a drug no one wants except the companies who make it, a tiny minority of dairy farmers and those who benefit from having a surplus of raw commodity--I’m sorry to say the dairy processing industry,” Rohland says. “It seems pointless to use questionable technology for something consumers don’t want, and for something that may put us out of business.”

A decision by the FDA on whether or not to approve BGH is expected sometime this year.


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