Junkfood Science: Keeping our wits about us

February 27, 2007

Keeping our wits about us

Many dubious scares and claims about our foods, bodies and health continue to appear over and over again — year after year, decade after decade — even though they were long ago laid to rest by science.

When we hear things that leave us feeling anxious or worried, it is helpful to remember that fear is a marketing tactic. True science is impartial and doesn’t use fear to convince us of anything. And one of the most popular marketing tactics is to repeat scares and claims and get them in the news as often as possible. Press releases are issued and get reported, oftentimes when there is really no new science to report. Marketers know that we more easily believe something to be true when we hear it everywhere. And it is so easy for us to become frightened by things that sound “science-y” when, in reality, they really don’t make any scientific sense at all.

Another popular tactic among special interests is to file dockets or suits with a federal agency or court system in an attempt to give their assertions more legitimacy in our minds. Never mind that their concerns are repeatedly examined and debunked under scientific scrutiny — we rarely hear about those outcomes.

You may have caught the recent news report with ominous-sounding claims about the safety of our milk:

Advocate Groups File Petition Against rBST

Three advocacy groups filed a petition Tuesday morning with the FDA calling for the withdrawal of approval for Monsanto's Posilac bovine somatotropin. The groups - Cancer Prevention Coalition, Organic Consumers Association, and Family Farm Defenders - say the injection of Posilac into dairy cows results in increased risks of cancer in humans who consume that milk...

Their petition, FDA Docket 2007P-0059, claims that scientific evidence has shown recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) to increase levels of IGF-1 in people who drink milk and that there are abnormalities in the milk. It was filed on February 15th by Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., head of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, who has written a book on “the industry and government cover up the dangers of rBGH” and led many fears about the safety of our food, and associated interests.

At his website, however, the scientific evidence presented isn’t new. Even so, over the past several decades he has written press releases, petitions and news reports based on the same studies and assertions — be it about scary dangers in milk, meat, irradiated foods, cosmetics, produce grown with pesticides and mammography, or skyrocketing rates of breast cancer and other cancers, that have all been disproven and shown by the most careful science to be without merit.

It might be easy to believe that the FDA has failed to adequately consider these concerns and for us to believe there must be some credible reason why these groups would continue to file petitions — but that would not be factual in this case. The references cited in last week’s FDA petition are old studies and the issues raised have previously been carefully considered and addressed by the FDA and scientific community and been shown to be without merit. The main points were summarized earlier here.

As John E. Rushing, Ph.D., professor of Food Science at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, explained in a review of the science of BGH: “Though the human safety of naturally-occurring bST [bovine somatotropin, also called bovine growth hormone or BGH] had been established in the 1950’s, many more extensive studies were required by FDA prior to the approval for marketing milk from test cows in 1985.”

According to Dr. Henry I. Miller, M.D. who was a research scientist at the National Institutes of Health before serving as the special assistant to the FDA Commissioner, as medical reviewer on biotechnology issues at the FDA, and founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology, and now serves as a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, concerns about the safety of BGH are “scientifically implausible.”

All of these concerns about bST were baseless. The drug underwent one of the most lengthy and comprehensive regulatory reviews in history. Used widely, successfully and safely for two decades, it markedly increases productivity: It allows farmers to produce the same amount of milk with fewer cows and milking machines, less barn space, and fewer veterinarian visits, vaccines, and so on....

Largely as a result of the misguided efforts and bullying...the FDA’s review of this excellent veterinary drug took nine years, while the evaluation of an almost identical product for injection into growth-hormone-deficient children had taken a mere 18 months.

New petitions do not mean new dangers

What no media has reported, and few consumers probably realize, is that these exact same complaints have been filed with the FDA before and thoroughly examined and dismissed. That’s why scientists who’ve followed this issue for the past 30-some years are apt to respond as described here.

For example, an almost identical complaint concerning rBGH was filed with the FDA in 2000 by another citizen activist, Robert Cohen, who has made frightening and negative claims about our milk being a “Deadly Poison” and causing serious health consequences for people, even causing obesity in children. The FDA’s response on April 20, 2000 [summary here] carefully looked at each concern and “new evidence” mentioned in his petition and again reiterated:

FDA has previously maintained and continues to maintain that levels of IGF-I in milk, whether or not from rbGH supplemented cows, are not significant when evaluated against levels of IGF-I endogenously produced and present in humans. IGF-I is normally found in human plasma at concentrations much higher than those found in cow's milk....IGF-I is a normal, but highly variable, constituent of bovine milk with the concentration depending on the animal's stage of lactation, nutritional status and age.

According to Dennis E. Baker, Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs, “the amount of IGF-I in milk from cows (regardless of possible rbGH supplementation) is insignificant compared to the endogenous production of IGF-I in people (less than 0.09%).”

The FDA’s response to the 2000 petition also examined concerns about how rBGH was manufactured and if any new technologies might change its original approval, and stated:

[To] reaffirm that the conclusion the Agency reached in this case was correct, FDA re-examined information previously submitted by Monsanto to support the approval of the rbGH. We also made a site visit to the sponsor to examine batch records that are not required to be submitted to the new animal drug files. Based on this examination, FDA reaffirmed its conclusion that the manufacturing changes resulted in only biologically inconsequential variations in the product used in the safety and effectiveness studies, and therefore, the rbGH product we approved is the same as the product used in the studies.

And concerning the effects or rBGH in milk, the FDA again stated:

Like most dietary proteins, rbGH is degraded by digestive enzymes in the gastrointestinal tract and not absorbed intact.

The FDA’s final determination on this petition again found:

....[T]hese arguments do not demonstrate any human food safety issue related to the use of Posilac. Therefore, the petition requesting withdrawal of the approval of Posilac was denied.

This latest petition will no doubt illicite the very same response, although when it is again debunked and dismissed, it will probably not make headlines.

The take home message for us: There is no credible evidence that milk is anything but a perfectly safe, wholesome and nutritious food for growing children and those who choose to enjoy it. And, FDA petitions and lawsuits do not equate to good science, nor to claims which we need legitimately fear.

Sadly, however, such tactics have proven useful for special interests. And the FDA has not proven to be infallible and has capitulated to similar pressures in the past. That’s why, once again, we have to look at the strength of the actual science, not the marketing, politics or news reports...nor let fears get the better of our common sense.

© 2007 Sandy Szwarc

Bookmark and Share