22 Nov 2013

Food Safety Wins Out On GMO Bovine Growth Hormone Saga

The ongoing 20-year saga of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) in US dairy cows is a lesson in why ‘the market always wins out’. The story tells of the power play between US corporate muscle, US federal and state regulators, state milk processors, national supermarket chains and the US consumer.

In the Late 70’s, biotech pioneers discovered the gene sequence for Bovine Growth Hormone. By the early 80’s, synthetic BGH (rBGH) was hastily approved by the FDA following a submission by the technology holders of a 90-day trial in rats. Subsequently, rBGH was commercialized under the trade name Posilac. Initially, no long-term human toxicology trials were undertaken. Since, the Canadian authorities have disputed the US findings and raised serious concerns regarding the toxicology and the question raised over hormone and antibody levels in rBGH milk. In short, the debating the science is can of worms.

The synthetic hormone known as rBGH is derived by brewing genetically modified recombinant E-coli and filtering off purified rBGH. The synthetic hormone is injected into cows just before the lactation peak to maintain the milk production peak for longer. Overall, milk yield is increased by up to 15%, providing cows are well fed. The less advised downside is a reported 25% increase in mastitis, increased antibiotic resistance, 40% reduction in fertility and 55% increase stock lameness. Up until a few years ago, it was estimated that 17% of US dairy cows were being injected with rBGH. That’s the short version of the on-farm sub story.

In parallel, processors were seeking to provide consumer choice at request of the supermarket chains and their customers by labeling for rBGH and non rBGH milk. Sounds fair. Enter the technology holder lawsuits trying to enforce the following milk label statement on processors. “FDA’s disclaimer - no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH-supplemented and non-rBGH-supplemented cows ”. What you don’t yet know is that the US FDA regulator and the rBGH technology holders were effectively one of the same. Both the FDA and the technology holders had a revolving door on the employ of key regulatory personnel. It’s been a case of putting the wolf in charge of the hen house.

On the human consumption end, controversy still rages over the effects of rBGH causing elevated Insulin – like growth factor (IGF-1) in cows and subsequently in milk. The unknown is whether the human gut digests IGF-1 completely to amino acids or whether it escapes through the colon into the bloodstream thereby elevating the risk to humans of developing tumors. Other concerns include raised milk antibody levels and the implications for infant milk digestion.

The irony is that in the sixteen years following rBGH initial release, the FDA have undertaken detailed studies that support the premise that the technology is safe. But it’s all too late, the market has long since revealed the rBGH milk leaves too many questions unanswered.

The end game is that the US dairy industry has suffered collateral long-term damage, particularly for exports. The saga is a sober reminder why commercialization of gene technologies for increased agricultural production should be pursued with market sentiment, food safety and education front of mind.

The original rBGH technology holders have since seen the writing on the wall and handballed the IP onwards, but not without nearly 20 years of extracting profits from the drugs sale whilst the various litigation played out.

At this current time, The United States and Brazil are the only developed nations to allow people to drink milk from cows injected with rBGH. All 27 countries of the European Union, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada have banned rBGH use in milk destined for human consumption.

For a further reading, go to:http://www.sustainabletable.org/797/rbgh …or google rBGH or Posilac