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Not Milk: The USDA, Monsanto, and the U.S. Dairy Industry

The dairy industry has spent billions of dollars convincing us that milk is healthy, all the while pumping chemicals into cows and the milk itself that makes it deadly.
 
 
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Milk, they say, is an important source of calcium that helps kids grow up big and strong. Milk is said to contain vital nutrients and to help prevent osteoporosis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through its food dietary guidelines, says that everyone should get 2-3 servings of dairy every day. Milk is advocated by various agencies of the U.S. government, legions of physicians, and the $180 million annual advertising budget of the dairy industry itself. Britney Spears, Carson Daly, Neve Campbell, Spike Lee, and other fine celebrities have endorsed milk, decorating thousands of billboards with their mustachioed mugs.

And, indeed, America has a love affair with milk. The average person living in the United States consumes over 600 pounds of dairy products every year, including about 420 pounds of fluid milk and cream, 70 pounds of various milk-based fats and oils, 30 pounds of cheese, and 17 pounds of ice cream. In aggregate, U.S. dairy farmers produce 163 billion pounds of milk and milk products a year.

But what if Britney and Spike were lying to us? What if milk doesn't do a body good? Instead, what if milk is a major contributor to breast cancer, heart disease, asthma, diabetes, and more? What if the U.S. government and the dairy industry are colluding to hide the ill effects of dairy consumption?

According to Amy Lanou, Ph.D., the nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), "Besides prostate cancer, milk has been linked to asthma, anemia, allergies, juvenile-onset diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and ovarian and breast cancer."

Why then, is milk still widely regarded as wholesome?

The USDA's Food Pyramid Scheme

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to its mission statement, is charged with "enhancing the quality of life for the American people by supporting the production of agriculture." Created by the pro-business Lincoln administration in 1862, today's USDA has the dual responsibility of assisting dairy farmers while promoting healthy dietary choices for Americans. Not surprisingly, this creates a conflict of interest that puts at risk the objectivity of government farm policy and the health of all dairy-consuming Americans.

In December 1999, the PCRM filed suit against the USDA, claiming the department unfairly promotes the special interests of the meat and dairy industries through its official dietary guidelines and the Food Pyramid. Six of the eleven members assigned to the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee were demonstrated to have financial ties to meat, dairy, and egg interests. Prior to the suit, which the PCRM won in December 2000, the USDA had refused to disclose such conflicts of interest to the general public.

The USDA's advisory committees have been dominated by the agriculture industry since the early 1950s, when the department devised the Four Food Groups, including milk, meat, fruits and vegetables, and breads and cereals. Over the years, these dietary guidelines have consistently reflected the industry's push for greater consumption of both meat and dairy, despite the testimony of numerous physicians' groups and watchdog organizations criticizing the Food Pyramid as biased and unhealthful.

The USDA's counter-argument? The food dietary guidelines must be reality-based, says the USDA, arguing that what people should really be eating is moot because it doesn't fit with the American lifestyle. Apparently, the USDA thinks it's unrealistic to promote healthy dietary guidelines to the increasingly obese American public, despite the fact that such guidelines are understood by just about everyone to be goals, not de facto rules. In other words, the USDA doesn't even think it's reasonable to aspire to what constitutes a healthy diet.

Government Cheese

With the recent passage of the Farm Bill on May 13, 2002, dairy farmers and processors will receive $2 billion more in subsidies over the next three and a half years, largely realized through price supports that inflate costs for consumers. Dairy subsidies are a carryover from the Depression era, when survival of small dairy farmers was considered essential to maintaining a national food supply.

Today, a large chunk of that additional $2 billion in subsidies is going to large dairy farms in twelve northeastern states. Further, as consolidation continues to occur in the dairy industry, federal subsidies are going to an increasingly small number of highly concentrated dairy operations, hanging small farmers out to dry and encouraging the demise of family farms. This increase in large industrial farms bodes ill for both cows and humans.

Lactose Intolerance and Ethnic Discrimination

Another assertion of the suit brought by the PCRM against the USDA is that the status of milk as a staple in school lunch programs unfairly discriminates against non-whites who have a high incidence of lactose intolerance. In total, there are an estimated 50 million lactose intolerant adults in the U.S., including 15 percent of the white population, 70 percent of the black population, and 80 to 97 percent of Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Jews of European descent. These 50 million people suffer from a variety of digestive symptoms that result from consuming milk and other dairy products, including gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and indigestion.

Currently, the USDA requires that every public school in the country serve milk. There's even a push by Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) to offer financial incentives to schools that install milk vending machines (after California, New York is the second largest dairy-producing state). Further, students cannot get free or subsidized alternatives to milk, such as juice or soy milk, without a note from their physician, so for 70 percent of black kids in public schools, a negative response to lactose intake is practically mandated by the U.S. Government. Same goes for 90 percent of Asian American students and 74 percent of Native American students.

The PCRM asserts that huge dairy subsidies and broad-based promotion of milk by the government's school lunch program is a form of economic racism that isolates minorities and encourages them to consume something they're disproportionately intolerant of or allergic to.

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Monsanto's Moo Juice

In 1990 the Monsanto Company commissioned scientists to inject a bunch of laboratory rats with an early variant of recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST), also known as Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH). The 90-day study demonstrated that rBGH was linked to development of prostate and thyroid cancer in the rats.

Monsanto -- the manufacturer of Agent Orange that also spent about four decades covering up the effects of PCBs -- was about to seek approval for Posilac, the company's commercialized form of rBGH. The study linking rBGH to cancer was submitted to the FDA, but somehow Posilac was still approved in 1994. With fingers pointing in both directions, those with opinions argue about who had a bigger part in the cover-up -- Monsanto or the FDA.

The results of the study, in fact, were not made available to the public until 1998, when a group of Canadian scientists obtained the full documentation and completed an independent analysis of the results. Among other instances of neglect, the documents showed that the FDA had never even reviewed Monsanto's original studies (on which the approval for Posilac had been based), so in the end the point was moot whether or not the report had contained all of the original data.

The FDA's complicity continued; Michael Taylor, a Monsanto lawyer for many years, left in 1976 to become a staff lawyer for the FDA. In 1991 he was promoted to the office of FDA's Deputy Commissioner, serving in that capacity until 1994. The administration approved rBGH in 1993.

While at the FDA, Taylor also wrote the policy exempting rBGH and other biotech foods from special labeling, considered by most to be a major victory for Monsanto. Ten days after Taylor's policy was finalized, his old law firm, still representing Monsanto, filed suit against two dairy farms that had labeled their milk rBGH-free.

As soon as the GAO released a report covering all of this, Taylor was removed to work for the USDA, as the Administrator of the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a position he held from 1994 to 1996. After holding positions at both the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Taylor then went back to working for Monsanto, this time directly, as the corporation's Vice President of Public Policy.

Michael Taylor wasn't the only government employee with an obvious conflict of interest. At the same time that Taylor left Monsanto for the FDA, Dr. Margaret Miller, once Monsanto's top scientist, was also hired by the FDA to review her own scientific research conducted during her tenure at Monsanto. In her role as FDA scientist, Miller made the official decision to increase the amount of permissible antibiotic residues in milk by a hundred-fold, in part to counter the increase of mastitis in cows due to overuse of artificial growth hormones.

These incestuous relationships between industry and the U.S. government are the norm rather than the exception. Decisions at the FDA are made primarily by advisory boards comprised of scientists and executives from the dairy and meat industries, with a few university academics thrown in for good measure.

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rBGH and the Damage Done

Girls in the U.S. are beginning to menstruate at younger and younger ages. According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, some girls are now experiencing the effects of puberty as young as three years of age. Fifty years ago the incidence of breast cancer risk among U.S. women was one in twenty, a percentage that has grown to one in eight women as of 2001.

Here's a big part of the reason why: Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH) is a naturally occurring hormone produced by milk cows. Closely resembling the natural growth hormones in human children, the presence of BGH in milk has been shown to significantly elevate hormone levels in people, creating a host of growth problems.

That's not even accounting for the use of artificial hormones. Recombinant BGH (rBGH) is an unnaturally occurring, genetically engineered hormone produced by Monsanto Company, a giant in the agrichemical industry, which has also made such other fine ecological and humanitarian contributions as Agent Orange and PCBs. Through a series of research cover-ups and a network of conflicting interests with government policymakers [see sidebar], Monsanto in 1994 managed to get approval for Posilac, the company's commercial form of rBGH, which increases cows' milk production by an estimated 15-25 percent.

According to Monsanto, over a quarter of U.S. milk cows are now in herds supplemented with Posilac. The vast majority of the country's 1,500 dairy companies mix rBGH milk with non-rBGH milk during processing to such an extent that an estimated 80-90 percent of the U.S. dairy supply is contaminated.

What Monsanto doesn't tell consumers is that supplementing the American diet with additional growth hormones is causing secondary sex characteristics to appear earlier in young children, particularly girls. Monsanto also won't tell the public that rBGH-injected cows produce milk with exceedingly high levels of Insulin Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1), a cancer promoter that occurs naturally in the human bloodstream at levels that generally do not result in tumors. Monsanto and the FDA refuse to acknowledge recent research directly linking elevated levels of IGF-1 to increased risk of breast and prostate cancer. Going even further, Monsanto and the FDA colluded in 1993 and '94 to block labeling requirements for rBGH milk. Consequently, the average dairy consumer has no idea if they're increasing their own risk of getting cancer.

Since 1994, every industrialized country in the world except the U.S. -- including Canada, Japan, and all fifteen nations of the European Union -- has banned rBGH milk. The United Nations Food Standards Body refuses to certify that rBGH is safe. Even the WTO, or more specifically its food standards body, the Codex Alimentarius, has refused to endorse Monsanto's claim that rBGH is safe for use in the dairy supply. In the face of facts and the majority opinion of the global political and scientific community, Monsanto and the United States continue to endorse rBGH milk for general consumption, at the same time scratching their heads about increases in breast cancer deaths and the continually declining age of puberty for girls.

What about the Cash Cows?

Okay, so milk is bad for people. Really bad, in fact. But what of the effect on cows producing that milk? The life expectancy of the average cow in natural conditions is about 25-30 years; on the typical factory farm, where well over half of U.S. milk cows reside, they live only four to five years.

The increased milk production spurred by dosing cows with Monsanto's Posilac causes them to suffer from mastitis, a bacterial infection of the udder, and widespread occurrences of cystic ovaries and disorders of the uterus. In addition to harming the cows, these conditions may produce discharges that are passed to consumers along with the milk.

It turns out that keeping dairy cows constantly pregnant -- the only way they will produce milk -- creates (surprise!) baby calves. The veal industry was created because the dairy industry didn't know what to do with male calves that otherwise had no economic value to dairy farmers (female calves are the future milk producers). The process is cruel from start to finish: the cows are artificially impregnated by being bound to what the industry terms a "rape rack," then injected with a series of bull semen, hormones, and antibiotics; veal calves are then immobilized in small wooden crates so that they can't move around, therefore ensuring the tenderness of their flesh when slaughtered. Over a million veal calves were slaughtered in the U.S. in 2001.

In the end, it boils down to a familiar story: Big business and the U.S. government joining forces to dupe the American consumer. The USDA tells us to drink more milk while subsidizing large dairy farms and federally mandating dairy consumption for schoolchildren. The government spends billions to buy unused milk and dairy products, one of the biggest forms of subsidies, while the industry spends almost $200 million every year promoting dairy consumption. Meanwhile, The FDA and Monsanto conspire to pollute the already unhealthful dairy supply with a genetically engineered hormone banned virtually everywhere else in the world.

So while the American public might fairly answer the dairy industry's ubiquitous question of whether it "Got Milk?" with a resounding, mustachioed "Yes," the better question might be whether people have gotten screwed in the process.

Ché Green is the founder and director of The ARMEDIA Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization focusing on farm animal issues in the United States.