The Bush administration is using a full-court press on the European Community, hoping that the EC won't ban a controversial hormone, made in the United States, that turns cows into super milk producers.
Administration officials have gone to bat for bovine somatotropin (BST) in the name of free trade. But they are ignoring serious questions about the safety of BST for cows, and about the impact on U.S. dairy farmers when there is no shortage of milk.
Britain and Germany have independently expressed their doubts about BST, but our sources say the EC's Veterinary Medicines Committee will likely approve the use of BST in member countries.
That would be good news for the American chemical companies who have developed BST and who stand to make as much as $500 million a year from the sale of it, if they can get it approved.
We have been reporting for more than a year on the flawed U.S. approval process for BST. The Food and Drug Administration fired one of its top animal safety experts, Dr. Richard Burroughs, when he refused to rubber stamp the applications from chemical companies for approval of BST.
Burroughs's firing brought investigators nosing around the FDA from the inspector general's office of the Health and Human Services Department and the General Accounting Office. Investigators are probing the review of BST.
The EC has had a one-year moratorium on BST to give European scientists time to decide if the synthetic hormone is safe. There are indications now that if the EC approves BST, it will be due as much to politics as to science.
Our associate Tim Warner has obtained high-pressure letters from several Bush administration officials to EC commissioners.
Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter wrote to EC Commissioner Ray MacSharry when MacSharry called for a temporary ban on BST. "We just cannot, and should not, stop technological process in this world," Yeutter wrote.
U.S. Trade Representative Carla A. Hills wrote to EC Commissioner Martin Bangemann asking him to drop his proposal for a two-year ban on BST.
And the U.S. ambassador to the EC, Thomas Niles, wrote to the commissioners urging them not to ban BST while the reviews were being done.
Back home, American dairy farmers are concerned that the administration has forgotten that milk prices are already low. A hormone that makes cows produce more milk could drive prices low enough to force more small farmers into bankruptcy.
Farm foreclosures are not the only reason the Bush administration should be more suspicious of BST. We reported last year on confidential studies done by the chemical companies that produce BST. Some of those studies indicate that BST could harm cows and affect the quality of milk.
The FDA has been reviewing BST for eight years, and has yet to approve it for widespread use. BST is used on small test herds of cattle, and milk and beef from those herds are sold on the open market without any special labeling.
Last week FDA officials said their review of BST will not be finished by next spring. They blamed the delays on the large amount of data and on questions from experts about the safety of BST.