From March 1989, I started receiving a series of phone calls from dairy farmers, mainly in the mid-west, inquiring about possible consumer risks of genetically-engineered or recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) milk to all of which I had to plead ignorance. The most memorable call came from a farmer who met my response with an irate comment to the effect that: If it makes my cows sick, their milk will also make people sick, so it’s damn well your job to find out about it. This wake-up call was my introduction to rBGH.
I soon discovered that as early as 1985, Monsanto had become aware of possible negative consumer reactions to the word hormone, and had attempted to change the name rBGH to the more neutral bovine somatotropin, rBST. However, this was too late in the U.S. as the term rBGH had already become well-established in the promotional and scientific literature. This was not, however, the case in Canada and Europe where the name rBST was readily accepted and so remains.
I first checked all major public health and medical journals and found no reference to any studies on possible human risks from rBGH milk. I then reviewed the 1987 and 1988 supplements of the Journal of Dairy Science. These contained numerous publications, virtually all by Monsanto or other rBGH industries and their indentured scientists in some 20 nationwide land grant colleges and universities, reporting results on some 60 milk production trials dating back to 1985. While abstracts of these publications were invariably highly reassuring with regard to the veterinary safety of rBGH, analysis of their texts and data, however, revealed a very different picture. Most of the trials were based on fewer than 10 cows, thus minimizing their statistical significance. Also, the data on health effects were sparse and almost incidental to milk production, to the complete exclusion of any long term, multi-lactational, and multi-generational safety studies. In spite of these limitations and the gross insensitivity of the trials, analysis of their underlying data revealed a high incidence of mastitis and reduced fertility, apart from major changes in the nutritional quality and composition of milk. By the time I had completed reviewing these trials, it had become clear that Monsanto, and the other rBGH industries (Dow Chemical, Eli Lilly, Upjohn, and American Cyanamid), had not only monopolized the research field and publications on rBGH but had also suppressed or manipulated evidence on its adverse veterinary effects. The FDA’s complicity was evidenced by their explicit assurances on the safety of rBGH milk, which was falsely claimed to be identical with natural milk. The FDA’s complicity was compounded by its decision to allow the sale of rBGH milk, since the inception of large scale milk production trials in 1985, to the unknowing public in the total absence of any questions, let alone studies, on human safety, particularly routine toxicological tests on rBGH milk and its altered ingredients and contaminants.
Of particular concern in this connection was evidence from sparse publications, unrelated to the industry trials, of elevated levels in rBGH milk of IGF-1, a natural growth factor whose levels are under control of natural growth hormones, whether bovine (BGH) or human (HGH). This raised a red flag in relation to cancer risks, particularly as converging lines of evidence in the endocrinology and cancer literature had already incriminated IGF-1 as a critical factor in the promotion of breast cancer.
Based on these considerations, I went public with a July 1989 editorial in the Los Angeles Times, followed by a report to the FDA outlining the basis of my public health, and veterinary concerns. The FDA’s response was non-substantive and replete with misstatements and frank misrepresentations.
By then, it had become clear that U.S. consumers were faced with the imminent prospect of the replacement of natural milk by rBGH milk, with its suspect or known hazards apart from the absence of any routine safety studies. I then decided to systematize my concerns and prepare a fully referenced and detailed scientific publication for submission to the leading international peer-reviewed public health journal, the International Journal of Health Services, which was published in January 1990.
While awaiting publication, a large box with no sender’s name or identification arrived at my office towards the end of October. To my amazement, it contained an extensive set of “Company Confidential” Monsanto files, presumably leaked from the FDA. These files provided details on a wide range of critical adverse health effects, all at striking variance with explicit contrary industry and FDA assurances, as detailed in my article co-authored by Peter Hardin in The Milkweed, January, 1990. These effects included: high levels of rBGH in treated milk; serious pathology in rBGH injected cows; a high incidence of reproductive failure; and the use of illegal drugs to treat mastitis and other adverse effects in rBGH cows. I then forwarded selected rBGH files to Cong. Conyers, then Chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations who, on the basis of their detailed investigation, charged Monsanto and the FDA with conspiring to manipulate critical health data, notwithstanding contrary public assurances. These confidential files posed further evidence of white collar crime, with which Monsanto besides other chemical industries, had been charged in my 1979 testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Hearings on White Collar Crime (H.R. 4973). This testimony documented evidence of Monsanto’s suppression of health and safety data on nitrilotriacetic acid, a proposed substitute for phosphate detergents, which I had documented while working as a consultant to the U.S. Senate Committee on Public Works in 1970. Similar concerns relate to Monsanto’s subsequent track record with regard to other carcinogens including acrylonitrile and Agent Orange.
Since the inception of the Cancer Prevention Coalition in 1994, my interests on the hazards of rBGH milk have extended from the scientific to include frank advocacy, an essential mission of public health. This monograph is a compilation of all my writings in both the scientific and advocacy aspects of rBGH from 1989 to 2000. It is also responsive to an ongoing stream of requests over the last decade for reprints or copies of my various writings.
The critical role of a wide range of public interest and citizen groups and their coalitions is also fully acknowledged; surprisingly, mainstream environmental organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have remained largely uninvolved. The monograph also provides disturbing details on Monsanto’s promotional and defensive strategies. Of particular note, these include harassment and intimidation of critical scientists, aided by a Dairy Council “hit squad,” and strong influences on trade policy involving “revolving door” relationships with the White House, Congress, regulatory agencies, and the Geneva-based Food and Agriculture/World Health Organization’s industry and regulatory dominated Joint Expert Committees on Food Additives.
It is of particular interest to emphasize that rBGH milk is a genetically engineered (GE) food, a fact not generally recognized by the public, let alone most citizen and consumer advocacy groups that have played such a critical role in the fight against rBGH, and also such national and international groups fighting against non-milk GE foods and ingredients. The hormone itself is unarguably a GE variant of normal BGH with distinct molecular, chemical, and immunological differences. Additionally, rBGH milk differs from natural milk in a wide range of parameters including nutritional, biochemical, pharmacological, immunological and hormonal, besides being contaminated with the GE hormone itself, excess levels of IGF-1 including a highly potent variant, and sometimes pus and antibiotics.
So what is the bottom line of this monograph’s saga? First and foremost, shoppers should avoid, if not boycott, all milk and dairy products in favor of those which are certified as rBGH-free. Supermarkets failing to sell these safer products should be pressured by individual consumers and consumer groups to make them freely available. Second, Monsanto’s and the FDA’s reckless two-decade track record of frank manipulation and suppression of health and safety data on GE milk sends the strongest possible warning to reject similar “trust assurances” on the safety of non-milk GE foods -- soy, corn, and other whole and processed foods and ingredients. These concerns are compounded by the total absence of any long term safety testing of these GE products by Monsanto and other biotech industries, as is the case with rBGH, and emerging independent evidence on their grave and possibly irreversible public health and environmental hazards.