Junkfood Science: Food fears most hurt the poor

December 18, 2006

Food fears most hurt the poor

© Sandy Szwarc 2006

A nonprofit organization for low-income citizens has called on the FDA to intervene against the deceptive marketing of certain food processors. They are concerned it is needlessly frightening poor people away from healthful and affordable foods.

According to the National Organization for African Americans in Housing, some milk processors are labeling their milk as “hormone-free” or “no rbST” milk when, in fact, it is no different from other milk that costs much less. These deceptive labels have raised unwarranted fears, said Kevin Marchman, NOAAH Board Secretary, and are generating undue confusion and anxiety. It is putting poor people into having to make a horrible choice: spend their limited resources for higher-priced milk they can ill-afford, or buy affordable milk they are being made to fear is less safe for their children.

While scares about hormones in milk have been circulating for more than a decade, it is nothing more than a marketing ploy, said Terry Etherton, professor and head of the animal nutrition department at Penn State University’s Department of Dairy and Animal Sciences. These “hormone-free” labels are not even driven by consumer demand, he noted, as few consumers even know or understand what bST is. “Unfortunately, there are those who seek to profit from what is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.”

“Authentic consumer demand is not driving things here,” said John Fetrow, professor of dairy production medicine at the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota, in a September letter to Feedstuffs. He believed it to be a “deliberate marketing strategy:”

For perfume companies competing for a bit of people's disposable income, this is a pretty harmless game. With food, it is not. The truth is that milk from cows treated with rbST is the same as milk from cows not treated, but if you can create a fear in the public's mind that there is a dangerous difference, then you have a way to differentiate your product, capture market share and charge more for the same milk.

Other major food corporations, not to mention the organic food industry, have been using the power of first creating and then marketing "food fear" for some time.

Milk sold as “hormone-free” can make a producer an additional $2.20 per gallon, said Dennis Wolff, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary. What we oppose is that it is simply capitalizing on fear, he said at a recent meeting of Pennsylvania dairy farmers. Consumers are being manipulated by science-sounding scares, but there is no science to support any of the claims being made about hormones in our milk.

What is it that these agricultural scientists know that makes them so certain that there is nothing to fear from hormones in our milk?

The best explanations I’ve found is in a bST Fact Sheet published by the U. S. Food and Drug Administration, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, written by Dr. David Barbano at the Department of Food Science at Cornell University. It carefully addresses each of the concerns circulating about bST.

First off, he explains that the safety of bST had been extensively tested prior to its FDA approval. Since then, it’s undergone reviews by expert health agencies around the world and repeatedly found to be safe and that the milk from cows given bST is indistinguishable from the milk from other cows.

bST is the abbreviation for bovine somatotropin, also called bovine growth hormone, which is a hormone produced naturally in the pituitary gland of cows and is used to control milk production. “The term rbST refers to bST that is produced using fermentation technology and injected into dairy cows to increase efficiency of milk production,” said Dr. Barbano.

Sadly, those trying to frighten consumers about bST know that the word “hormone” will bring to mind steroids, like sex hormones and cortisone. But there are two types of hormones: steroid and proteins. bST is a protein hormone and has no activity when it’s eaten because the body digests it just like any other protein. Insulin is another protein hormone that doesn’t do anything when it’s eaten, which is why insulin-dependent diabetics can’t take it in a pill, but have to get injections.

The second major point not clarified among those trying to scare people is that cow hormones are not people hormones, so even when they’re injected they have no influence on people. “There is no way on this green earth for rbST to have a biological effect on a human,” said Dr. Etherton.

After extensive testing to compare milk from cows that received bST and those that didn’t, it has been repeatedly confirmed that “there are no differences in nutrient content (i.e., fat, protein, calcium, vitamins, etc.) or sensory characteristics (flavor, color, etc.), said Dr. Barbano. “Milk from cows given supplemental bST contains no more bST than milk from cows not given the supplement.” Nor are the small differences in IGF-1 (growth factor) that some fear, notably different from the normal, natural variations that occur during a cow’s lactation period. But IGF-1 also isn’t a concern because it, too, is a protein hormone and digested just like any other protein in foods we eat.

There have been all sorts of claims about bST’s role in triggering infections among the cows, but scientists laid those concerns to rest years ago. The FDA held a special advisory panel hearing in March of 1993 which reviewed the extensive body of research and confirmed that the natural seasonal effects on mastititis was 9 times more significant than any possible role of bST. And anytime antibiotics are given to a cow for an infection, that cow’s milk is discarded until there are no traces of antibiotics in the milk.

Milk and dairy products are among the most tested and regulated foods in this country. Every tanker load of milk is strictly tested for antibiotics. In the extremely rare event that any milk tests positive, it is disposed of immediately, never reaching the food supply. Farmers are financially liable if antibiotics are found in the milk, so they take these regulations very seriously.

In September 2003, the FDA issued warning letters to four milk producers to remove “hormone-free” claims from their labels because they are false claims. As the FDA letters noted, “all milk contains naturally occurring hormones and milk cannot be processed in a manner that renders it free of hormones.” The FDA said milk producers have no basis for claiming that milk from untreated cows is safer, but that hasn’t stopped producers from doing so.

So when we are making milk choices for ourselves and our family, we now have information to make an informed choice. We know that our milk supply has never been safer and there is no credible evidence for concerns.

But there is a wider problem these scare campaigns bring that should concern us, said Dr. Fetrow. And that is, that they undermine the public’s confidence in the safety of all food.

Taking advantage of deliberately generated "food fear," will be used by advocacy groups to build momentum as they attract donations and target whatever next production practice they decide to dislike for whatever self-interested reason. Corporate interests will jump on the bandwagon in a greedy effort to capture some temporary advantage in the marketplace. More ill-conceived demands will be made of producers: rationality, science, practical impacts, environmental and consumer costs not withstanding.

The abundant, efficient and cost-effective production of wholesome food for society will be the victim.

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