by Vince Patton
KGW-TV, Portland, OR, via CropChoice
February 17, 2005
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A barrage of consumer questions and complaints has convinced the Tillamook Creamery Association to force all of its dairies to abandon the use of genetically engineered growth hormones in its cows. The move is sparking a rebellion by some farmers, re-ignites a decade-old controversy and puts Tillamook on the national stage by spurning the biotech giant, Monsanto, which makes the growth hormone.
Tillamook's 147 member dairy farmers have been told to sign an affidavit before a notary public swearing they do not use rBGH (recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone). Reflecting Tillamook's concern about publicity, the affidavit also swears the farmer to secrecy.
However when confronted by KGW, the creamery confirmed the dramatic change and reluctantly agreed to discuss it.
"We've seen a lot of feedback from our consumers," says Tillamook Creamery Association President Jim McMullen, "When eight percent of your customers are talking about that issue, that's substantial and we need to listen."
Tillamook dairy farmer Dick Heathershaw decided to try the synthetic hormone 4 years ago. The biotech giant Monsanto wanted him to add "Posilac" to his cows' routine: a bi-weekly syringe full of genetically engineered growth hormone. Heathershaw says, "They (Monsanto) were just really relentless in pushing it, you know. They'd visit you continually."
One injection every 14 days kept the cows' hormones artificially inflated. As a result, they ate more and produced more milk. He says he saw milk production in rBGH-treated cows rise about five percent, not the 10 to 15% Monsanto touts for its product.
The artificial growth hormone was approved more than a decade ago by the Food & Drug Administration, but Heathershaw was late to try it.
Now he strongly supports the unanimous vote of Tillamook's board to ban the growth hormone. He used it for two years but did not like what he saw. "We started to see some health problems we didn't like with our cows," he says. "They're just under a lot more stress."
Animal welfare and human health issues have prompted more than 22 consumer groups to call for the ban of Posilac in milk production.
For years when consumers asked Tillamook if its dairies used artificial growth hormones, the Creamery replied with an evasive form letter simply stating that it only accepted milk "that meets or exceed U.S. health standards." McMullen concedes it never answered the question directly.
"I just thought, why can't you give me a straight answer?" asks Rick North, the former head of the American Cancer Society in Oregon. Today he leads a consumer campaign in Oregon for Physicians for Social Responsibility trying to ban rBGH.
Monsanto Director of Public Affairs Jennifer Garrett emphasized the findings of the Food & Drug Administration that there is no impact on human health and that milk is exactly the same from natural cows and cows on Posilac.
However the countries of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the 25 countries of the European Union all have banned the use of Posilac due to concerns about animal health and unanswered questions about human impacts.
Human health concerns
In Portland, Dr. Martin Donohoe, a board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, is not convinced by FDA reassurances. He's most concerned by studies that indicate Posilac inflates the levels of another hormone called IGF-1 in the milk produced and other studies which associate IGF-1 with cancer in humans.
Donahoe says, "When the data are strong and suggestive and the consequences are enormous - we're talking about cancer, then one should proceed with caution."
Monsanto and the FDA say the amount of IGF-1 is insignificant and it does not affect people.
In response to a petition five years ago to stop the use of Posilac, the FDA "reviewed the issues raised" and said they did "not demonstrate any human food safety issue."
Animal welfare concerns
Monsanto's synthetic hormone comes with a set of warnings that cows can suffer side effects including large swellings, significant foot problems and infected udders producing visibly abnormal milk. Donahoe explains, "The use of rBGH in the cattle results in infections in the udder. Those infections transmit pus, or dead bacteria, white blood cells into the milk." That ruins the milk so it cannot be sold to consumers.
According to the FDA, since Posilac was approved in 1994, more than 53-thousand cows had adverse reactions to Posilac; 376 have died.
Monsanto will not say how many cows are on the artificial growth hormones. It says only that there are 9 million dairy cows in America and one third of the herds use Posilac on at least some of the cows.
Tillamook farmer Dick Heathershaw did not lose any cows but he says they got sick more often. After two years of using the artificial hormone, he dropped it, and believes his cows are now healthier. "We've never looked back," he says. "We think it's one of the best things we did was to get our animals off of it."
With the Tillamook Board's vote to ban artificial growth hormone from all its member dairies, consumers who ask Tillamook now about their policy will finally get a straight answer. "Yes," says McMullen, "they'll get a very distinct answer."
Heathershaw is pleased. "They want a yes or no," he says of Tillamook's customers, "and we're trying to give them that. And without customers, we have nothing."
While Tillamook says it is dropping growth hormones to satisfy customers, it has no plans to tell customers about that by changing the labels of its products.