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Behind the Labels

Milk labels that make claims such as “no added hormones” or “no antibiotics administered” typically come with a larger price tag. But is the extra money worth it? That depends. If the labels fit your philosophy about how food should be produced, those products may be well worth the price. But if your only concern is reducing your exposure to potentially dangerous substances, don’t lose sleep over purchasing conventionally produced milk.

Fears that cows are “pumped full of hormones” or that milk contains antibiotic residues, while untrue, understandably turn away many consumers. Regardless of the label claim, “there is no difference in the composition of milk when you go to the store,” said Lewis Jones, former chief of the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s dairy division, which regulates the state’s dairy industry.

It’s important to remember that choices for farmers mean choices for consumers, and both groups share diverse beliefs about food production. What we all have in common is the desire for food that, above all else, is safe. So whether your purchasing decisions are driven by philosophy or finances, know that you’ll have a hard time finding a farmer who will produce food for your family that he wouldn’t feed to his own.

David White, Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s senior director of issues management, said all farming methods should result in a profit for the farmer, a clean environment and a safe, abundant and wholesome food supply.

“We are keenly aware that the means to accomplish these ends may vary from operation to operation, and that no single method of farming will work for every operator,” he said.

Intuitively, milk labeled free from added hormones or antibiotics is accepted as safe, but what should you assume about milk with no such label?

Here are some things to consider:

What is BST?
BST or bovine somatotropin is a naturally occurring protein hormone produced by all cows and found in all milk, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is also known as BGH or bovine growth hormone. Some dairy farmers administer a synthetic duplicate of this protein known as rBST or rBGH to cows.

How does BST work?
During a cow’s lactation cycle, about 300 days, her milk production quickly increases, peaks then gradually declines. Two months into her lactation, a BST supplement can cause milk production to decline at a slower rate. Supplemental BST may increase milk production an average of 10 percent, according to the FDA.

Is BST safe to consume?
According to the FDA, BST is a protein, not a steroid and is simply digested when consumed. “We don’t test for it, because it’s not hazardous to your health,” the agriculture department’s Jones said. The FDA points out that in the 1950s, BST was injected directly into the bloodstream of humans in an attempt to cure dwarfism. Because it is not active in humans, it had no effect.

Does administering BST increase the hormone level of milk?
“The composition of milk should be the same,” said Maurice Eastridge, an Ohio State University dairy specialist. According to the FDA, there is no difference in BST levels in milk from cows administered BST and those that were not. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees food labeling, notes that claims of “no added hormones” or “no rBST” refer to the method in which the milk was produced, not its quality or safety.

Who uses BST?
According to Monsanto, the company that makes rBST, an estimated one-third of U.S. dairy producers administer BST to their cows.

How do cows receive BST?
The FDA notes that BST is a protein and would simply be digested if eaten. Therefore it must be administered through the cow’s bloodstream. A dose of BST is 500 mg every two weeks in conjunction with the cow’s lactation cycle. 500 mg is the same size as a single extra strength aspirin. It can also be administered as a slow release ear implant.

Why are cows given antibiotics?
Cows are sometimes given antibiotics to treat illness, most commonly an udder infection called mastitis, but that milk is not sold until the drug clears the cow’s system, Ohio State’s Eastridge said. To ensure food safety, antibiotic residues in milk are illegal. “The milk has to be discarded according to the (antibiotic) label.”

Therefore, there is a strong financial incentive for farmers to keep cows healthy such as providing a clean living environment to prevent mastitis. According to USDA standards, organically raised cows must be given antibiotics as needed to treat illness. However, those cows then become ineligible for the organic program.

What about antibiotics in milk?
“Every tanker load of milk, before it is unloaded at a processing plant is tested for antibiotics,” Jones said. “The tolerance is zero.” Milk labels with claims such as “No antibiotics administered” indicate the cow never received an antibiotic treatment for illness.

What safeguards are in place to keep antibiotics out of milk?
In addition to testing at the processing plant, tests are run on individual milk samples from each farm. If a tanker load tests positive for antibiotics, it is returned to the offending farmer and dumped. “That producer pays for the tanker load of milk,” Jones said. “If it happens three times in one year, that producer loses his license.” The FDA also oversees Ohio’s milk regulation process. “If we’re not regulating it properly…we ( Ohio) lose our ability to transport milk interstate.”