Glass of milk splashingPhoto: Guiri R. Reyes
Earlier this week, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the state of Ohio's ban on labels that identify milk as rBST- or rBGH-free, meaning produced without the use of artificial bovine growth hormone. Consumer and organic food groups were jubilant at the Ohio news, which may have far-reaching repercussions not only for all milk, but for genetically engineered foods.

First, some background: rBGH stands for recombinant bovine growth hormone; rBST for recombinant bovine somatotropin. Both are a genetically engineered variation on naturally occurring hormone that farmers inject into cows to increase milk production by as much as 10%. It has also been proven to increase the incidence of mastitis in cows, which as any breastfeeding mother knows is a painful condition requiring treatment by antibiotics -- and indeed, rBGH use has also upped the use of antibiotics in dairy cattle.

The United States is the only developed nation to allow people to drink milk from cows given artificial growth hormone. All 27 countries of the European Union, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada have banned its use in milk destined for human consumption. [Update: Brazil does allow it.] In 2007, Monsanto, which created and manufactured Posilac, the most popular form of rBST, began encouraging its dairy-farmer customers to protest their rBGH-free competitors' labeling. Campaigns to restrict rBGH-free labeling were launched in 14 states, as this Ethicurean satire chronicled, but only Ohio passed the effort. In October 2008, Monsanto saw the writing on the dairy wall and dumped Posilac on Eli Lilly.
Thanks to consumer pressure, approximately 60% of milk in the U.S. is rBST-free at this point, labeled or not, according to the Center for Food Safety. However, that leaves an enormous amount of milk still being produced with these hormones, and by extension cheese and most brands of ice cream, except for Ben & Jerry's.

Pus budget
The joyful reception to the appeals court's decision is about more than the right of consumers to know what's in their food -- something that may come in handy in the fight over labeling for genetically modified foods such as the new salmon. Much of the appeals court's rationale hinged on its assertion that there is a "compositional difference" between milk produced using the hormones and milk produced without. While the district court denied this fact, the appeals court stated very clearly that such a denial "is belied by the record."

As Jill Richardson helpfully summarized it, compared to untreated milk, rBST milk has:
  • Increased levels of the cancer-causing hormone IGF-1 [more about that in this report from the watchdog group Consumer Union]
  • Lower nutritional quality when produced at certain points in the cow's lactation cycle; and
  • Increased somatic cell counts (i.e. more pus in the milk)