Got rGBH?

There is a compositional difference between milk from cows treated with genetically engineered, artificial growth hormones and those that are not, ruled the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals last week. The court relied on evidence of this in striking down an Ohio state ban on labels that identify milk as rBGH- or rBST-free. Those letters refer to Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin, an artificial growth hormone used to increase milk production in cows. The Food and Drug Administration approved it in 1993. Ever since, consumers and scientists have been concerned about its risks regarding cancer, the creation of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the painful udder disease mastitis, which requires antibiotic treatment.

The Center for Food Safety presented evidence against rBST for the case, IDFA et al. v. Boggs. In a statement, the Center said, “The court also found that the use of rBST ‘induces an unnatural period of milk production’ resulting in milk ‘considered to be low quality,’ and that milk from treated cows turns sour more quickly, another indicator of poor milk quality.”

Producers voluntarily can label their milk and dairy products as “rBGH-free,” but the FDA doesn’t require it. In fact, they discourage it, saying such labels make consumers think there’s something wrong with treated milk. As’s Tom Laskawy explains, the FDA’s rationale for allowing unlabeled rBST milk was that it was “indistinguishable in all detectable ways from its conventionally produced counterpart.” However, the appeals court ruling says exactly the opposite, which may lead to the FDA revisiting the issue—or at least to a lot of letters encouraging them to readdress it.

This milk ruling could also set a precedent for labeling of other genetically modified foods, such as the genetically engineered salmon (See “Frankensalmon,” Greenspace, Sept. 16.) currently awaiting approval for human consumption.