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organic living journey rBST and rBGH in milk

The following is part of an ORGANIC JOURNEY GUEST POST SERIES, written by Amy a long time helper behind the scenes of Southern Savers.

I hope you had a great Thanksgiving and took at least one baby step in your journey. I made a double batch of the broccoli rice casserole and a homemade apple pie, which were both devoured.  Two big steps for me this year!  Next year, I’ll tackle the cranberry sauce because mercy, the stuff in the can is just so good and easy.  No judgment, we’re taking baby steps here, friends.  To revamp everything is too much and we quit, remember?

So now, back to our exploration of dairy.  We waded through the benefits and dangers of both raw and pasteurized milk last time, and now, we are going to discover what on earth rBST and rBGH are – because we can’t figure out how to spend our money wisely until we know what we should be investing in.

Important Milk Lingo

Cows naturally produce a hormone called bovine somatotropin or bST for short.  This hormone is produced by the cow’s pituitary gland and is what helps them have normal milk production.

Now, some scientists got creative and made a synthetic version of this hormone that mimics the effects of bST.  This synthetic hormone is called recombinant bovine somatotropin, rBST or recombinant bovine growth hormone, rBGH.  Why give a cow a synthetic hormone that mimics what they already have in their bodies?  Sources say that it will boost the milk production of cows by 10% over 300 day time span.  So more milk from the same cow means more money in the farmer’s pocket.

What Effects Do Synthetic Hormones Have?

There are lots of reasons that these synthetic hormones have gotten a bad rap.  Here are a few.

1.  There are many negative affects to the cows themselves.  A study in Europe revealed that the cows have health issues ranging from infections around the injection site to an increase in mastitis and reproductive disorders.  The injection of growth hormones doesn’t make for healthier cows.  It can make them sick.

2.  More mastitis in cows also means more antibiotics for them.  Many are concerned about the potential for antibiotic residue in the milk and the negative effects it can have on our health.

3.  There is a good bit of debate about whether or not the composition of milk changes as a result of the addition of growth hormones.  I found this information helpful:
“…on 30 September 2010, the United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit, analyzing evidence submitted in briefs, found that there is a “compositional difference” between milk from rBGH-treated cows and milk from untreated cows. The court stated that milk from rBGH-treated cows has: increased levels of the hormone Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1); higher fat content and lower protein content when produced at certain points in the cow’s lactation cycle; and more somatic cell counts, which may “make the milk turn sour more quickly.”
Shuck it all down, the US Court of Appeals determined that the milk was different in that it had a higher fat content and lower protein content, would potentially sour more quickly and had increased levels of IGF-1.  Which takes us to…

4.  There is an increase in IGF-1.  The short story is that there is a correlation between high levels of IGF-1 and increase in growth of cancer in humans.  Now, back to logic classes for me.  Correlation means that those two things are happening at the same time; it is not the same as causation.  Causation means that it has been clearly established that something causes the other to happen.  For those who want more details, keep reading.

“One of the ways that rBGH increases milk production, is by stimulating production of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in the cow, and it is this hormone which increases growth and milk production.  Human IGF-1 and bovine IGF have an identical amino acid sequence and nearly identical biological activity. While endogenous IGF-1 occurs normally in the milk of both humans and cows and is normally produced and circulates within humans as well, consumers have been concerned about levels of bovine IGF-1 in milk treated with rBGH because there is a very well established correlation between abnormally high levels of circulating IGF-1 and the development and growth of human cancers.

An FDA study indicated that IGF-1 levels in milk from rBGH-treated cows is within the physiological range found in human breast milk. Other studies have shown that while IGF-1 is not destroyed by the pasteurization process, any “extra” IGF-1 that may occur in a given batch of milk from treated or untreated cows has no effect on the organism which ingested it, because IGF-1 is denatured in the stomach.”  (Source)

Bottom-line for me, while there is no direct causation (only correlation) of health risks for humans in the consumption of milk from cows treated with growth hormones, part of my journey has been to be a better steward of the earth.  It appears to be widely accepted that using rBST or rBGH causes health problems in cows that they wouldn’t have experienced without the hormones.  Since the sole purpose of giving them the hormones is to produce more milk with less cows and thus lower the price of milk, I am willing to spend a little more to avoid that.

Here is where it gets tricky.  In 2007, the USDA took a survey that showed that only 15.2% of operations use the synthetic hormone which affects only 17.2% of cows.  That was in 2007, and there has been a growing backlash against the use of the synthetic hormones.  It wouldn’t surprise me at all if that number is smaller now, but they are still being used.  Most milk that you get at the grocery store is rBGH free.  Even Wal-Mart is on board due to consumer demand, but pick up a container of sour cream from any of your big name manufacturers, and you will notice that there is no mention of the growth hormone. The manufacturers are not required to label dairy products whose cows were treated with synthetic growth hormones.  The good news is that most products without rBST or rBGH will be labeled so, and according to the USDA, “Organically raised animals must not be given hormones to promote growth or antibiotics for any reason.”  (Just to clarify, there is another point on the organic standards list that states that sick animals must be treated.)  So, if you want to buy dairy without rBGH or rBST and you aren’t buying organic, you can check the label first to see if it is labeled.  If not, don’t hesitate to call your favorite brands and ask.

So, we’ve seen one difference in organic vs. regular dairy in that you are guaranteed rBST free with organic, next week, we’ll dive in to see what other differences we can uncover.

    • Casail

      Wow! Thank you so much for putting so much time into this to educate us! I am learning so much and can’t help but read with my eyes getting wider and wider!

      • amysanders

        me too! i even realized today that my saying that i was going to go rBST free meant that i had to reconsider ALL my dairy, not just milk. it is slowly sinking in!

    • heidi

      Thank you for the excellent breakdown! I thought if I bought a store name milk, that was rbst-free, that all their dairy products would be!! UGH!

      • amysanders

        that would make it simpler, wouldn’t it?

    • Jenni P.

      Such good info, and so concise. Thank-you!

    • lla77

      Yes, thank you for the work and research you are doing. This is so helpful!

    • Hope

      Thank you! I look forward to your next post!

    • TheChapLeigh

      Great info, thanks for posting :)
      Wanted to give you & Jenny a head’s-up… for the longest time I wasn’t able to access this post on my computer due to a “certificate error” of some sort. Sometimes I can get to your posts if I enter it into the search box, then click onto a previous entry of yours (Amy), & then go through the “organic living posts” link. However, i realize much of this could be on the part of my computer, so if no one else had made any comments about it then you can disregard. I did notice, however, that only 7 people had commented on this post, and the above situation may be the reason why?
      Also, I’d love to hear about your bread-making. I’m about to step into that world myself, as I am wanting organic whole grain bread, and all I can currently buy at my store (organic & not-frozen) is the La Brea breads freshly-baked in the store. I usually stock up when its on B1G1 & freeze it, but even then it’s organic WHITE. I am wanting to make my own sour dough starter & go from there.
      I’m also wanting to get good at making mozzarella & ricotta cheese, as I’ve only tried once & I need to get more practiced at it. Also will embarq on cheddar somewhere down the road… just as a final comment to your final comment about truly leaving behind all hormones in your dairy ;)
      Thanks for all of your research!