Consumers Question `Synthetic' Milk

Use of bovine growth hormone boosts dairy output, spurs calls for truth in labeling

THE dairy industry wants to know how you like your milk: natural or synthetic?

In the past two months, some dairy farmers have started using a drug that boosts milk production. The drug - bovine growth hormone (BGH) - is virtually the same as a hormone cows produce normally. But synthetic BGH is genetically altered, which has alarmed many farmers and consumer groups despite federal assurances the product is safe.

Now, consumers are poised to enter the fray. If the dairy industry can find a way to test and label which milk uses the synthetic hormone, consumers will be able to vote with their dollars. On Wednesday, Vermont became the first state to require labels on dairy products made from BGH-treated milk.

``Vermonters have the right to know what is in the food they eat,'' Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D) said in signing the bill.

The voting has already begun here in Wisconsin - with mixed results.

In his office full of cow-breeding trophies and ribbons, Greg Greenheck pulls out a small white box. ``These are the needles,'' he says. The syringes, made by the St. Louis-based Monsanto Company, come in two parts. Every 14 days, Mr. Greenheck assembles the syringes and injects 25 of his 90 milking cows.

The results so far are impressive. The cows are giving an extra 15 pounds of milk on average per day, he says, or about a 20 percent increase over the average production of his herd. The synthetic BGH, which Monsanto calls Posilac, costs some eight pounds per day per cow, so Greenheck estimates he's about seven pounds ahead on each cow he treats, which means an extra $8,570 in annual revenue.

Dean Doornink in Baldwin, Wis., has seen a similar increase in his dairy barn. ``We have gotten five pounds of free milk'' per cow per day, he says.

Concerns about animal health

But most Wisconsin farmers appear to be dead-set against the technology. ``I don't see that this is going to help them any,'' says Francis Goodman, a Wonewoc, Wis., dairyman. His farm sports a ``BGH-free'' sign out front. He and other BGH-opponents tick off several concerns about Posilac and its effects on human and animal health and the dairy economy.

The economic concerns are clear-cut. If farmers adopt BGH in large numbers, they will boost production, push down prices, and probably force some operators out of business. The survivors will be the better managed farms - not necessarily the biggest ones. Because Posilac requires no start-up costs, small farmers should have the same opportunity as large ones to benefit from BGH.

Real disagreement centers on the health questions. Most scientists who have examined the data say that there are no added risks to human health. ``I don't see any hazard with it,'' says Lewis Sheffield, professor of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. ``I have yet to find any difference in the milk.''

But Michael Hanson, research associate at Consumers Union in Yonkers, N.Y., says that unanswered questions remain. He and other consumer advocates are suspicious because Monsanto has resisted releasing all its test data.

Even Monsanto concedes the drug affects animal health. The insert it supplies with each Posilac package says the hormone may reduce cows' pregnancy rates, raise the risk of disease, and increase the need for medication. But many dairy scientists say the situation can be properly managed. After two months of use, Messrs. Goodman and Doornink say they have had no increase in their cows' health problems.

Far from easing consumer fears, this back-and-forth debate has caused more confusion. Supporters of the synthetic hormone seemed to have won a major victory when the federal Food and Drug Administration approved Monsanto's product for use last fall. But opponents have battled back by pressing states and local school districts to oppose the substance.

Some dairy cooperatives are lax

A key problem is that, at the moment, no test exists to determine whether milk contains the synthetic hormone or not. That leaves dairy cooperatives in a quandary. Some of them want to ban the product but, without a test, all they can do is get farmers to sign an affidavit that they're not using it. Reports continue to surface here that some farmers are signing the affidavit but using Posilac anyway. Farmers say some cooperatives are making no effort to crack down.

Schools face a related problem. Richland School District here and neighboring districts have passed resolutions saying they prefer to buy milk free of synthetic BGH for their lunch programs. But because cooperatives often mix in out-of-state milk, making such a guarantee is impossible, says district administrator Ed Meyer. Both sides agree that a test probably can be devised to identify the synthetic hormone. That would allow consumers to make the final choice between a cheaper milk with the synthetic hormone and a more expensive ``natural'' alternative.

Already, Wisconsin's Kwik Trip convenience stores are selling milk that, according to an affidavit, is ``natural.'' Since February, when the company also revamped its packaging, sales have been up 8 percent to 10 percent, according to marketing director Gary Gonczy.

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