November 19, 2007

Milk “Label-Gate” Update – Eggs, and Hopefully a Lawsuit, Are Next

To be honest, I’m surprised that this story has managed to maintain any traction. Heck, on Sunday morning, one of the local news channels even managed to squeeze in a 2-minute segment on it between the weather and a story about some guy who kicked the snot out of a neighbor who had broken into his house.

And even more surprising was that a Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA) representative actually called in response to an email I sent expressing my dismay with this decision.

First, the highlights of my talk with Bill Sherdan (can’t confirm this is the correct spelling – amazingly, I forgot to ask how you spell his name!) from the PDA’s Food Safety & Laboratory Services division. To be honest, the volume of my voice was a tad-bit raised at times. I’m used to writing about complex subjects and I don’t like somebody trying to spin me under the guise of, “This is complex and you just don’t fully understand it,” which is how I felt this discussion went at times.

  • Mr. Sherdan said repeatedly that there is no difference between milk produced from cows shot up with rbGH and those that haven’t. Why? Mostly because there’s no test to find rbGH in milk. This latter point, according to this excellent and very timely report from the dairy industry publication The Milkweed, is fairly scandalous. Normal FDA regulations typically require that a “residue assay” be developed in a situation where a company is potentially altering a product that will end up in humans via the introduction of another substance – in this case, a synthetic hormone. For some reason, this was not required when the FDA approved rbGH in 1993!
  • Second, he argued that dairy farmers are using it, so we should just shut up and let them do it. This is close to verbatim. “Farmers are saying, ‘We don’t care. We know it’s safe and we’re going to use it.” Except for the ones who aren't, of course. And, these days, that's a lot of them.
  • He tried to use the argument that cows normally produce hormones in their milk, so saying “hormone-free” is misleading. This made me want to curse, loudly.
  • And, finally, I noted that other products in the grocery-store are labeled as hormone-free, like meat, poultry, and pork, and asked whether they were next. He said, frighteningly enough, that eggs were most likely the next thing to come under the scrutiny of PDA and this mysterious Food Labeling Advisory Committee. The slippery slope indeed!

Two other things of note. Mr. Sherdan said that PDA staff met with representatives from York, Pa.-based Rutter’s Dairy, which has been vocal about its opposition to this decision. I don’t blame them! Rutter’s received approval from the PDA in August 2007 – a whopping three months ago – to use a new label that proclaimed its milk free of artificial growth hormones. A decision they then, of course, reversed a whole two months later.

During the meeting, Mr. Sherdan said, PDA staff encouraged Rutter’s to “tell their story” about their product, using the back part of the label. I don’t know if this means they can still say their product is hormone-free, however. But there does appear to be some truth to what Mr. Sherdan told me:

The Rutter's officials called the meeting "productive" and said they hope the exchange will lead to a common ground that will allow Rutter's to continue with its current labeling, or similar labeling.

Meanwhile, it sounds like some legal action could be in the future. Earl Fink, of the Pennsylvania Association of Milk Dealers (which doesn’t have a Web site!), tells the Pittsburgh Tribune Review they may sue to prevent the new rules from taking effect.

[Fink’s] organization is talking with state agriculture officials to work out more acceptable labeling requirements, but it is one of many state and national groups (emphasis added) planning to sue to stop the ban from going into effect, he said.

"The labels are allowed in 49 other states," he said. Processors would have to have Pennsylvania-specific labels and face increased costs in separate inventories and by rearranging delivery routes, he said.

This is what really pisses me off: Are financial and logistical realities going to prevent the smaller dairies/companies that provide hormone-free, antibiotic-free products from doing so in Pennsylvania because of this change?

I have also been in contact with the folks at the Campaign for Safe Food and they apparently are about to take some "action" on this issue, although it's unclear at this point whether that's a lawsuit or something else.

It's important to make something very clear: I am not a tin-foil hat kind of guy. I don’t see conspiracies around every corner and, after more than a decade as a medical/science writer, am extremely skeptical of claims that, for example, say cell phone use causes brain cancer or that drinking pomegranate juice is going to prevent Alzheimer’s.

All of this said, since I have started investigating this issue, it seems that valid concerns have been raised about whether milk from rbGH-treated cows has potential risks for humans who consume that milk. This is particularly true with regard to what rbGH does to levels of the protein known as IGF-1 in a cow’s milk. In well-conducted studies published in leading peer-reviewed journals, this protein has been linked to some of the most common cancers, including breast and prostate cancer. It also turns out that IGF-1 is molecularly identical in cows and humans – it has the exact same amino acid sequence. And, in its own studies to support FDA approval of rbGH, Monsanto showed that IGF-1 levels were significantly higher in treated cows versus untreated cows.

Along those same lines, a 2002 study out of Harvard by a highly-respected group linked dairy consumption to higher IGF-1 levels. Now this result came with the entirely appropriate disclaimer that “more research must be done to determine whether milk consumption itself is directly linked to cancer risk."

The problem is, nobody at the FDA seems to be very keen on conducting this research. They’d rather just stick with the language they used when they approved rbGH in 1993 – no difference in the milk from an rbGH-treated cow and a non-rbGH-treated cow.

Of course, they are saying this. Imagine the furor if they even intimated they were now uncertain. They’d have to admit that the original decision – and the research they based it on – was a little shaky! They’d be giving the impression that perhaps children and adults are everyday consuming dairy products – thanks to that government-subsidized “Got Milk?” campaign - that could potentially increase their risk of disease, including the big C. It would be a PR nightmare of remarkable proportions.

So, instead, they do nothing.

Finally, to get back to the whole BS reasoning PDA Sec. Dennis Wolff and his Food Labeling Advisory Committee used to justify this decision: The labels are misleading. When a somewhat similar discussion around milk and rbGH came up in Maine in 2003, Dr. Michael Hansen, from the Consumer’s Union (home to Consumer Reports), sent a letter to the Maine State Attorney General that laid out some of the scientific concerns I cited above. But Dr. Hansen also made this excellent point:

Monsanto also argues that the ads “mislead consumers by creating the false impression that milk is somehow better if it is produced without the use of rBST. Indeed, these claims falsely suggest that there are health or safety risks associated with milk from rBST-supplemented cows.”

We do not necessarily believe that a truthful label—such as “from farms that pledge not to use artificial growth hormone” or “Our Farmers’ Pledge: No Artificial Growth Hormones”—always leads to the conclusion that milk from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones is “safer or superior to non-supplemented milk.” While some consumers may draw such a conclusion from these ads, others may not. Indeed, if such labels are considered to mislead consumers, then, by the same logic, labels such as “contains no artificial flavoring or colorings” or “contains no preservatives” would also be considered to mislead consumers. Yet no one has suggested that such labels should be banned.

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