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Hormone-boosted milk passes FDA review.

Hormone-Boosted Milk Passes FDA Review

In its first published evaluation of one of the most controversial animal drugs of the decade, the Food and Drug Administration has declared that dairy milk produced with the help of recombinant bovine growth hormone (BGH) is as safe to drink as the old-fashioned variety.

After reviewing dozens of studies addressing BGH and human health, FDA scientists report in the Aug. 24 SCIENCE that the drug -- a genetically engineered version of natural BGH -- "presents no increased health risk to consumers." Another research review echoing that conclusion, authored by scientists from Washington University in St. Louis and Cornell University, appears in the Aug. 22/29 JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION. The two papers represent the strongest affirmation yet that the experimental milk is safe for human consumption.

Although BGH-stimulated milk from FDA-approved experiments has been legally sold in several states, the commercial product still awaits federal licensing.

The hormone has both tantalized and alarmed milk producers and consumers since the early 1980s, when scientists learned to mass-produce it in bacteria and experiments showed it could increase dairy milk production by 10 to 40 percent. Besides stirring health concerns about hormones in milk, the newly synthesized drug worried small dairy farmers, who foresaw gigantic farms quickly exploiting the hormonal advantage while smaller farms struggled to revamp their operations to incorporate the new technology. Earlier this year, Wisconsin and Minnesota -- where small farms are rapidly disappearing -- banned the sale or commercial use of the drug for at least a year.

FDA now concludes that BGH is biologically inactive in humans. The hormone refuses to bind to human tissues; nor does it show toxicity when fed to rats, even at doses equivalent to 100 times those normally given to dairy cattle. A substance called insulin-like growth hormone, produced by cows in response to BGH, also shows no biological activity at various doses in rats. Although increased levels of this hormone showed up in the milk of treated cows, the total amount "was lower than what you would find in human breast milk," says report coauthor Judith C. Juskevich, now a toxicology consultant in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Though these findings may calm the anxieties of many milk drinkers, some analysts say they do not bode well for the nation's small dairy farmers. "Some people are going to get hurt," says Robert J. Kalter, an agricultural economist at Cornell. He anticipates that within five years of BGH reaching the market, the number of U.S. dairy cattle will decrease by as much as 25 percent as fewer cows suffice to supply the market demand. These decreases, he predicts, will hit small or poorly managed dairy farms the hardest. "Frankly, the small farms are disadvantaged with or without [BGH]," says Kalter. "They may survive five, 10, 15 years, but 40-cow operators in this day and age are not a viable enterprise anymore."

Nonetheless, he says, "I think the benefits [of BGH] outweigh the costs. If you don't keep prices competitive, other food sources will take over the market -- much as margarine replaced butter. I think the industry would be shooting itself in the foot if it banned BGH."

Larry O'Neill, a spokesman for Monsanto Co. in St. Louis -- one of four companies developing and testing BGH under FDA guidelines -- says he expects FDA approval for a commercial license next year. But legal hurdles remain, according to FDA spokesman John K. Augsburg. Some critics of BGH claim that the stress of increased milk production lowers bovine disease resistance and conception rate. Augsburg says FDA is now reviewing data on dairy cow and calf health from each of the BGH-producing companies.

"All the data that we have asked for, the firms have been able to generate," he adds. "I would not say it would be approved within a year, but there are no big stumbling blocks."
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Title Annotation:Food and Drug Administration
Author:Stolzenburg, William
Publication:Science News
Date:Aug 25, 1990
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