Milk, they say, is an important source of calcium that helps kids grow up big and strong. Milk is said to contain vital nutrients and help prevent osteoporosis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its food dietary guidelines, says that everyone should get two to three servings of dairy every day.
Milk is advocated by various agencies of the U.S. government, legions of physicians, and the $180 million annual advertising budget of the dairy industry itself. Britney Spears, Carson Daly, Neve Campbell, Spike Lee and other celebrities have endorsed milk, decorating thousands of billboards with their mustachioed mugs.
And, indeed, America has a love affair with milk. The average person living in the United States consumes more than 600 pounds of dairy products every year, including about 420 pounds of fluid milk and cream, 70 pounds of various milk-based fats and oils, 30 pounds of cheese, and 17 pounds of ice cream. In aggregate, U.S. dairy farmers produce 163 billion pounds of milk and milk products a year.
But what if Britney and Spike were lying to us? What if the U.S. government and the dairy industry are colluding to hide the ill effects of dairy consumption?
According to Amy Lanou, Ph.D., the nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), "Besides prostate cancer, milk has been linked to asthma, anemia, allergies, juvenile-onset diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and ovarian and breast cancer."
Why, then, is milk still widely regarded as wholesome?
The USDA's Food Pyramid scheme
According to its mission statement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is charged with "enhancing the quality of life for the American people by supporting the production of agriculture."
Created by the Lincoln administration in 1862, today's USDA has the dual responsibility of assisting dairy farmers while promoting healthy dietary choices for Americans. This has, some allege, created a conflict of interest that can put at risk the objectivity of government farm policy and the health of all dairy-consuming Americans.
In December 1999, the PCRM filed suit against the USDA, claiming the department unfairly promotes the special interests of the meat and dairy industries through its official dietary guidelines and the Food Pyramid.
In the suit, the physicians group pointed out, six of the 11 members assigned to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee were demonstrated to have financial ties to meat, dairy and egg interests. Prior to the suit, which the PCRM won in December 2000, the USDA had refused to disclose such conflicts of interest to the general public.
The USDA's advisory committees have been dominated by the agriculture industry since the early 1950s, when the department devised the Four Food Groups, including milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals.
Over the years, these dietary guidelines have consistently reflected the industry's push for greater consumption of both meat and dairy, despite the testimony of numerous physicians' groups and watchdog organizations criticizing the Food Pyramid as biased and unhealthful.
However, the USDA countered that the food dietary guidelines must be reality-based, and that what people should really be eating is moot because it doesn't fit with the American lifestyle.
With the passage of the Farm Bill this May, dairy farmers and processors will receive $2 billion more in subsidies over the next three and a half years, largely realized through price supports that inflate costs for consumers. Dairy subsidies are a carryover from the Depression era, when the survival of small dairy farmers was considered essential to maintaining a national food supply.
However, as consolidation continues to occur in the dairy industry, federal subsidies tend to go to an increasingly small number of highly concentrated dairy operations, which has forced many small farmers out of business. It's expected that a large chunk of that additional $2 billion in subsidies will be divided among large dairy farms in 12 northeastern states.
This increase in large industrial farms bodes ill for both cows and humans.
In its lawsuit, the PCRM also asserted that the status of milk as a staple in school lunch programs unfairly discriminates against nonwhites, who have a high incidence of lactose intolerance. An estimated 50 million adults in the U.S. are lactose intolerant, including 15 percent of the white population, 70 percent of the black population, and 80 to 97 percent of Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Jews of European descent. These 50 million people suffer from a variety of digestive symptoms that result from consuming milk and other dairy products, including gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation and indigestion.
Currently, the USDA requires that every public school in the country serve milk. There's even a push by Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) to offer financial incentives to schools that install milk vending machines (after California, New York is the second largest dairy-producing state). What's more, students cannot get free or subsidized alternatives to milk, such as juice or soy milk, without a note from their physician.
The PCRM asserts that huge dairy subsidies and broad-based promotion of milk by the government's school lunch program is a form of economic racism that isolates minorities and encourages them to consume something their bodies tend to reject.
Monsanto's moo juice
The recent introduction of Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) into the country's milk supply has raised further controversy. In 1990 the agrichemical giant Monsanto Company commissioned scientists to inject a bunch of laboratory rats with the genetically engineered hormone, recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST), or Bovine Growth Hormone. Monsanto was about to seek approval for Posilac, the company's commercialized form of the hormone, which increases cows' milk production by an estimated 15 to 25 percent.
The 90-day study demonstrated that the hormone was linked to the development of prostate and thyroid cancer in the rats. The study linking it to cancer was submitted to the FDA, yet Posilac was still approved in 1994.
The results of the study were not made available to the public until 1998, when a group of Canadian scientists obtained the study's full documentation and completed an independent analysis of the results. The documents showed that, among other instances of neglect, the FDA had never reviewed Monsanto's original studies (on which the approval for Posilac had been based).
More recent research has shown that the hormone-injected cows produce milk with exceedingly high levels of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), a cancer promoter that occurs naturally in the human bloodstream at levels that generally do not result in tumors. Elevated levels of IGF-1, on the other hand, have been linked to increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. The FDA has not acknowledged this research, however.
The U.S. stands alone
According to Monsanto, more than a quarter of U.S. milk cows are now in herds supplemented with Posilac. The vast majority of the country's 1,500 dairy companies mix rBGH milk with non-rBGH milk during processing to such an extent that an estimated 80 to 90 percent of the U.S. dairy supply contains some percentage of rBGH.
By contrast, since 1994, every other industrialized country in the world -- including Canada, Japan, and all 15 nations of the European Union -- has banned the hormone-enriched milk. The United Nations Food Standards Body refuses to certify that the hormone is safe. Even the World Trade Organization, or more specifically its food-standards body, the Codex Alimentarius, has refused to endorse Monsanto's claim that Bovine Growth Hormone is safe for use in the dairy supply.
Friends in high places
Michael Taylor, a Monsanto lawyer for many years, departed the company in 1976 to become a staff lawyer for the FDA. In 1991 he was promoted to the office of FDA's Deputy Commissioner, serving in that capacity until 1994. The administration approved the hormone in 1993.
While at the FDA, Taylor also wrote the policy exempting rBGH and other biotech foods from special labeling, considered by most to be a major victory for Monsanto. Ten days after Taylor's policy was finalized, his old law firm, still representing Monsanto, filed suit against two dairy farms that had labeled their milk rBGH-free.
As soon as the General Accounting Office released a report covering all of this, Taylor was removed to work for the USDA, as the Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a position he held from 1994 to 1996. After holding positions at both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Taylor then went back to working for Monsanto in the late 1990s, this time directly, as the corporation's Vice President of Public Policy.
Michael Taylor wasn't the only government employee with a conflict of interest. At the same time that Taylor left Monsanto for the FDA, Dr. Margaret Miller, once Monsanto's top scientist, was also hired by the FDA to review her own scientific research conducted during her tenure at Monsanto.
In her role as FDA scientist, Miller made the official decision to increase the amount of permissible antibiotic residues in milk by a hundred-fold, in part to counter the increase of mastitis in cows, a bacterial infection of the udder that results from overuse of artificial growth hormones.
These relationships between industry and the U.S. government are the norm rather than the exception. Decisions at the FDA are made primarily by advisory boards comprised of scientists and executives from the dairy and meat industries, as well as a handful of university academics.
What about the cash cows?
So what of the effect on cows producing that milk? The life expectancy of the average cow in natural conditions is about 25 to 30 years; on the typical factory farm, where well over half of U.S. milk cows reside, they live only four to five years.
The increased milk production spurred by dosing cows with Monsanto's Posilac causes them to suffer from not only mastitis, but widespread occurrences of cystic ovaries and disorders of the uterus. In addition to harming the cows, these conditions may produce discharges that are passed to consumers along with the milk.
In the end, it boils down to this: The USDA tells us to drink more milk while subsidizing large dairy farms and federally mandating dairy consumption for schoolchildren. The government spends billions to buy unused milk and dairy products, one of the biggest forms of subsidies, while the industry spends almost $200 million every year promoting dairy consumption.
Meanwhile, the FDA and Monsanto conspire to pollute the already unhealthful dairy supply with a genetically engineered hormone banned virtually everywhere else in the world.
So while the American public might fairly answer the dairy industry's ubiquitous question of whether it "Got Milk?" with a resounding, mustachioed "Yes," the better question might be whether people have gotten duped in the process.
Ch Green is the founder and director of The ARMEDIA Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization focusing on farm animal issues in the United States.
Hormone-free dairies in Colorado
Boulder dairy Horizon Organic makes its milk products available in stores throughout Colorado including Albertson's, Cub Foods, King Soopers, Safeway, Vitamin Cottage, Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats. On its Web site, www.horizonorganic.com, Horizon Organic pledges that "all our products are produced without dangerous pesticides or chemicals. Our cows are treated with respect and dignity, fed a certified organic, vegetarian diet and never given growth hormones or antibiotics."
Royal Crest Dairy offers home-delivery of milk and other products in the Pikes Peak region. On its web site, www.royalcrestdairy.com, the dairy pledges that it has "contracted with our producers not to treat their cows with the bovine growth hormone rbGH. In addition, all milk is tested for antibiotics." Southern Colorado residents are asked to call 888/226-6455 for more information.
Morning Fresh Dairy delivers only in the Fort Collins/ Loveland/Greeley area. On its Web site, Morning Fresh guarantees "all milk we bottle is hormone free, preservative free and pesticide free. To ensure this we feed our milk cows alfalfa that we grow ourselves without the use of pesticides. The milk in our bottles only comes from cows in our herd so we can guarantee no hormones. We bottle our milk ourselves so we know there are no preservatives added." They can be reached at 970/352-1042.
Longmont Dairy offers home-delivery in Boulder County, and northern and western Denver suburbs. On its web site, www.longmontdairy.com, they emphasize that "we control the entire process of milking and distribution to assure customers that the milk they receive is the freshest available ... we don't use any supplemental growth hormones (BST)." They can be reached at 303/776-8466.