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A Return to Old-Fashioned Milk Production?

Air Date: Week of

In Canada, government scientists have discovered a report by the Monsanto Corporation, makers of Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) which stimulates milk production in dairy cows. The document indicates that the hormone may be linked to certain thyroid and prostate diseases, and could be implicated in some cancers. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) first approved use of BGH back in 1933, and since then, about one in every three cows has been given the genetically engineered milk production stimulant. Steve Curwood speaks with Dr. Michael Hansen, a researcher at the Consumers' Union in New York about what has recently led activists to petition the FDA for a BGH ban.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A genetically- engineered hormone that stimulates milk production in cows is coming under fire from Canadian government scientists and US consumer groups. The Canadians have uncovered a report by the Monsanto company, makers of bovine growth hormone, that shows the hormone may be linked to prostate and thyroid disorders and may promote certain kinds of cancer. Since 1993, when the hormone was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration, as many as 30% of cows in the United States have been injected with it. Now activists are petitioning the FDA for a ban. Dr. Michael Hansen is a researcher at the Consumers Union in New York. He says the Canadians became concerned about missing data in the FDA records.

HANSEN: Well, the Canadian investigation was done by Health Canada, which is their equivalent of our Food and Drug Administration. And basically what they found was that there were significant gaps in the data. The one that's causing the most problem is there was a 90-day rat study. This 90-day study was the key study that our Food and Drug Administration used to determine that bovine growth hormone was safe, and to determine that they did not need to do longer-term toxicity testing to look for cancer, to look for birth defects. None of that was required for this. They only required a 90-day study, and they claim that it found nothing, and that's why they didn't require longer- term testing.

CURWOOD: Canadians say that's false, that in fact it did find something. They found a response to ingesting this. It created antibodies. It created cysts on thyroids. Is this cancer, these cysts, or are they just benign growth?

HANSEN: We don't know because we don't have the full study to look at. In the gaps analysis they just refer to that, so I don't even know the extent of the increase in the cysts. So until Monsanto or the Food and Drug Administration releases the whole study, we won't know.

CURWOOD: Did the US Food and Drug Administration know about these problems with bovine growth hormone when it approved the drug in 1993?

HANSEN: It's unclear whether the FDA knew about the problems. Monsanto claims that all the data from this 90-day rat study was turned over. The FDA is on record of saying that they did not have all the data. I tend to think that they must have had the data because scientifically you can't evaluate how good a study is if all you have is a summary of it. If that's true, then they misled the public, and falsely approved this product when they should have, at the very least, required longer-term toxicity testing.

CURWOOD: Tell me, does bovine growth hormone show up in the milk of the cow that takes it?

HANSEN: Yes it does. It's there at very low levels in the milk. But of course, since it's a hormone, hormones can be active at very small quantities. I should also say that bovine growth hormone doesn't appear to act as a growth hormone in humans. However, insulin-like growth factor number one, or IGF- 1, it's actually the IGF-1 that stimulates the milk production. IGF-1 in humans and cows is the exact same molecule, and the studies, even the FDA agrees on this, that milk from cows that are treated with bovine growth hormone have significantly higher levels of IGF-1 compared to the milk of untreated cows.

CURWOOD: So this could conceivably have an effect on one's insulin system in the body.

HANSEN: The concern is not so much with the insulin system. We're now finding that IGF-1 is a potent growth promoter, and it's been associated with growth of quite a number of tumors. In the last year, for example, we've had large epidemiology studies connecting IGF-1 to breast cancer. And the concern that we have is that cows that are injected with bovine growth hormone will have increased levels of insulin-like growth factor number one in the milk, and that could potentially increase our risk of polyps and tumors.

CURWOOD: In humans.

HANSEN: In humans.

CURWOOD: So, what's your recommendation right now regarding bovine growth hormone? Do you think that this drug's approval should be suspended by the FDA pending further investigation?

HANSEN: Consumers Union believes that the proper administrative procedures have not been followed, and so the drug should be pulled off the market, that its registration should be suspended until the appropriate testing has been done.

CURWOOD: Michael Hansen is a researcher at the Consumers Union in New York. I want to thank you for taking this time with me today.

HANSEN: Why, thank you.

CURWOOD: Since we conducted our interview, top officials at the FDA told Living on Earth that the agency did in fact have the results from Monsanto's 90-day rat study all along. But they said it was misplaced and not reviewed until this fall. The FDA says nothing in the data would have affected its approval of bovine growth hormone.



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