Ohio Victory! Court Rules GMO Milk is Inferior to Natural Milk

Last week an Ohio court gave supporters of natural, non-GMO food a tremendous victory. In reviewing two decades of scientific evidence, the court found that milk produced using Monsanto’s GMO hormone rBGH is inferior to natural milk, and thus the state could not create burdensome labeling rules on food companies that mark their dairy products to assure consumers that their milk is rBGH-free.

When FDA approved its use in 1993, milk from cows injected with Monsanto’s genetically engineered (GMO) drug rBGH (also called rBST) became the first GMO food allowed. Knowing that consumers would prefer natural milk, many dairies rejected the drug and began to label their milk as “rBGH-free,” “artificial hormone free,” or other similar claims.

Of course, Monsanto opposed any such labeling. The company claimed that since FDA found “no difference” between natural milk and milk from injected cows, such labels were misleading, as they imply a difference that does not exist. FDA sided with Monsanto, creating label rules that made it difficult for dairies that want to let consumers know that their milk was made without the GMO drug.

The FDA “no difference” rationale was repeated with every new GMO crop introduced by Monsanto and the biotech industry, and underlies the agency’s current proposal to approve GMO salmon.

But many dairies persisted in truthfully labeling their natural milk as “rBGH-free,” while Monsanto repeatedly attacked such labels, bringing complaints to the FDA, FTC and to the courts.

In response to Monsanto’s latest assault on milk labels, an Ohio court looked at the question, are milk producers’ label claims about the composition of their natural, non-rBGH milk misleading? That is, the court considered the issue of whether the use of rBGH creates any differences in cows’ milk.

This issue was hotly debated before FDA allowed Monsanto to introduce rBGH, and has been repeatedly argued since. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, for two decades FDA has held to the view that there are no significant differences between natural milk and milk from cows treated by rBGH.

But the Ohio court found otherwise. Their review of the scientific evidence over the past twenty years found that milk from cows injected with rBGH is different, in ways that are detectable and of import to consumers. The court noted that scientists have found at least three significant differences that make rBGH milk inferior to natural milk:

  • Milk from cows injected with rBGH has higher somatic cell counts; in other words, there’s more pus in the milk. The court notes that this can lead to milk that sours more quickly (not to mention that most people would prefer to avoid pus-filled milk).
  • The use of rBGH “induces an unnatural period of milk production,” during which injected cows produce inferior milk that has lower protein and higher fat content.
  • Milk from injected cows contains higher levels of a hormone called IGF-1; several studies have linked high levels of IGF-1 in blood with breast and prostate cancer, among other health hazards.

The court noted that, for cows that have never been injected with rBGH, the claim that milk is “rBGH-free” is demonstrably true – the unnatural, GMO drug could not possibly be detectable in natural milk. For injected cows, the milk may contain rBGH – the only reason this is uncertain is because no test has been developed to detect the drug in milk. The court concluded that “this evidence points to two distinct types of milk” – inferior milk produced with rBGH, and natural, no-rBGH milk.

One might think that this victory for truth in labeling came only because decades of new science uncovered  information about rBGH-milk that FDA did not have when it approved rBGH, and the court’s ruling does cite some of these more recent papers.

But in fact, FDA knew about increases in the pus in milk from rBGH-injected cows, heard testimony on the low-quality periods induced by the use of rBGH, and had information about high levels of IGF-1 – as well as information about other human and animal health concerns — when the agency approved rBGH in 1993.

FDA continues to insist that rBGH milk is “no different” than natural milk, but looking at much of the same science that FDA reviewed, the Ohio court came to the opposite conclusion. Given that rBGH is banned in Europe, Japan, Canada and much of the rest of the world, Americans should be asking why we’re still arguing about labeling questions, when the question should be, why hasn’t FDA rescinded its approval of this risky, unnecessary GMO drug?

(For a copy of the Ohio court ruling, contact charles@ceh.org )

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2 Comments

  1. Posted October 4, 2010 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    I like this court decision — we do need to find ways to allow honest, voluntary labelling.

    As for the net superiority of non-rBST milk, I’m curious about one thing: price. I live in Canada, so I can’t make the comparison myself. But where the 2 are both available, does there tend to be any price difference between non-rBST milk and milk that may-or-may-not be produced via rBST?

  2. Posted October 4, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the comment, Chris! Milk prices can vary for many reasons, and some markets may charge slightly more for rBGH-free milk — although many stores simply phase-out all BGH-milk and offer only rBGH-free (at their usual price) or organic (at a premium). At any rate, dozens of dairies and food companies have rejected rBGH-milk for some or all products (including Starbucks, Kraft, Tillamook and many others) without increasing prices, so clearly it is possible to purchase non-rBGH milk cheaply.