SAN FRANCISCO — After 14 years of widespread use, a safe and proven technology for increasing the availability of low-cost dairy products could disappear if government regulators place fears and rumors above sound science.
The technology at issue is recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST), a drug designed to increase milk production in cows. Though approved by the FDA in 1994, rbST has spawned considerable controversy and misconceptions.
Nearly identical to a natural bovine hormone, rbST has been repeatedly demonstrated to pose no risk to humans. After decades of review and hundreds of scientific studies, no significant differences have been found between milk from treated and untreated cows. Despite this overwhelming scientific evidence, rumors and questions persist about the drug’s safety.
The most common fears surround not rbST, but another hormone present in milk that at very high levels may correlate with certain types of cancer. While this hormone, insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), may be slightly elevated in milk from rbST-treated cows, it is degraded in the digestive tract before entering the bloodstream. As a result, there is no evidence suggesting any link between milk and cancer.
Requiring farmers who use rbST to place warnings on their products would mislead consumers, lending credibility to unfounded claims.
The FDA employs rigorous standards for evaluating safety and efficacy. In determining risk, the gold standard test is known as a double-blind, placebo-controlled human trial. To be considered scientifically sound, any labeling mandate should arise from one or more of these studies. Given that rbST causes no significant changes in the milk produced, it is not surprising that no such studies exist to substantiate any of the rumored effects on human health.
Consumers, of course, have a right to know if products they consume pose real risks to their health. With this knowledge, informed shoppers can weigh potential hazards against additional factors, such as cost, quantity, and frequency of consumption. Labels should only alert consumers to dangers based on sound scientific evidence, and not dissuade them from purchasing safe and inexpensive products made possible through technological innovation.
Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s milk supply now comes from cows injected with rbST. The resulting increase in production efficiency enables farmers to cut prices by more than 35 percent.
If regulators cover these packages with ominous labels, many customers will spend more for an identical product. This will disproportionately affect the poor, and decrease the incentive for researchers to develop and market cost-saving technologies.
Because rbST does not alter the final milk products or pose any demonstrated health risks, labeling requirements would be both unnecessary and misleading. Given the controversy, some consumers may wish to avoid these products as a precaution, even if the threshold of evidence for mandatory labeling has not been met.
In a competitive market, vendors will rush to satisfy any significant consumer demand. As a result, many dairy farmers now voluntarily reject using the hormone in order to tout their products as “rbST-free.” This enables customers concerned with more than just health dangers to pay higher prices for milk produced according to their preferences.
In the same way that stores stock vegetables grown without pesticides, markets develop to fulfill demands based on personal, moral or environmental principles. The FDA’s stated mission, however, entails only “protecting the public health,” not catering to individual preferences or whims.
Until opponents of rbST produce evidence of harm based on science, not hype, the FDA should not mandate labels that scare consumers away from safe, nutritious, and affordable dairy products.