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Lines drawn in growth hormone hearts and minds battle

By Neil Merrett , 27-Aug-2008

The International Dairy Federation (IDF) says the industry should not rule out using products like recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to help boost milk supply, but must do more to prove any potential benefits to consumers.

Products like rBGH, also known as Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), have been classed as safe by the World Health Organisation, the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration, and have been used in the US for well over a decade. The hormones are not permitted for use in the EU.

Nonetheless, manufacturers and retailers are increasingly pledging to drop synthetic hormone milk from their operations in the US to meet some consumer concerns over consuming the milk.

rBGH offers a synthetic variant of the naturally occurring hormone in the pituitary gland of cattle, which can be injected into a cow to increase milk production.

Some critics of synthetic hormone use claim the practice has been linked to detrimental health impacts in animals as an additional area of concern.

Consumer support

Jim Begg of the IDF told DairyReporter.com that while no approved production methods should be ruled out when considering using science in food production, manufacturers have work ahead if they are to alleviate consumer concern.

“It is crucial that any new technology has the support of consumers if it is to be successful,” he stated. “Scientists and manufacturers have to prove the case for new technology before it can be presented to consumers.”

Just last week, Elanco, a division of pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly, announced it had acquired Posilac, Monsanto’s entire branded growth hormone business, for an initial fee of $300m.

Upon making the purchase, group president Jeff Simmons said that he saw a promising future for growth hormones as increasing global demand for dairy products has led to higher commodity prices for manufacturers.

“With the purchase of Posilac, Elanco can enhance its overall product portfolio and work together with the industry to provide dairy farmers more options and give consumers affordable choices,” he stated. “Critically, we remain focused on the health and care of the cow in working with farmers to increase global milk supply.”

However, Begg said that the use of rBGH products was not necessarily the only means to boost supply.

He claimed that while there has been growing global milk demand, particularly in emerging markets, supply should also be boosted in these countries accordingly.

“In countries like India, the dairy sector is responding to demand growth by improving cows’ diets and boosting milk output,” stated Begg. “Globally, it is by focusing on the nutritional requirements of cattle that we will raise milk production.”

Posilac

Posilac, an rBGH not permitted for use in the EU, has been used in US milk production under Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval since 1994, though it is experiencing some consumer backlash of late.

A growing number of dairy processors and retailers are seeking to add a "no-rBST" label in response to consumer demands for natural foods. This has led manufacturers and retailers like Starbucks to drop the synthetic hormone milk from their operations.

Wider industry view

The International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), which represents manufacturers across the US, says it supports the use of ‘no-rBST’ labels to provide consumers with accurate information on the milk.

“Many dairy processors are offering products made with milk from cows not treated with rBST, and they make that clear with production claims on their product labels,” the association stated. “The claims simply provide information that consumers want; they do not reflect any health or safety issues.”

While the dispute over labelling continues in the US state of Ohio over what claims can be legally made on milk that is free from synthetic growth hormones, some dairy groups remain critical of rBGH use.

Organic industry concerns

The US-based Organic Trade Association (OTA) has rejected Elanco’s claims that rBGH products like Posilac can help to offset milk supply concerns.

A spokesperson for the group told DairyReporter.com that there was no current shortage of milk and rGBH use was not therefore required to safeguard consumer and manufacturer milk supplies.

“It is used by farmers to increase the milk production of their herds so that they can reap more money,” the spokesperson stated. “There is increased turnover in cows treated with synthetic growth hormones.”

While synthetic hormones are prohibited from use in organically certified milk, the OTA claimed that rBGH use has been linked in studies to a variety of animal health problems including the painful udder disease clinical mastitis and clinical lameness.

The organisation also pointed to the findings of a European Commision working group back in 1999, which concluded after discussions that rBST should no be used in cattle reared in the bloc.