This is an escalating controversy that I, frankly, didn't want to get involved in.

But after spending two days reading stacks of material that appeared in my mailbox, and talking with, among others, a very vocal spokesman from the typically conservative Consumers Union -- the same people who rate our vacuum cleaners -- about some very unsavory qualities of rBGH milk, I couldn't help myself.

As you may know, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of Monsanto's controversial recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH) and issued some very stringent guidelines -- what one spokesperson calls "a regulatory nightmare" -- on the voluntary labeling of milk and milk products not treated with rBGH (also called rBST for recombinant Bovine Somatotropin).

Maybe my inability to stay quiet has something to do with milk itself. The word is synonymous with the best and the purest we have, things like babies and white teeth. If our milk, which is supposed to be nourishing and comforting, is riddled with still more drugs -- pumped out of sick and stressed cows -- what is left?

But my most pressing reason has to do with hormones. No, not as in the raging ones we used to joke about, but as in the importance of maintaining a delicate balance, which in some cases can mean the difference between life and death. What person in their right mind would choose to ingest a bioengineered hormone -- whose long-term effects have not been studied -- so cows can produce more milk that we don't need?

And: Because I live in a dairy state (Wisconsin, second in production behind California), I see cows fairly regularly. I like them.

I have a great deal of sympathy with rBGH-injected cows and the extra lactation forced upon them. Any nursing mother knows about a certain physiological overload of hunger, fatigue and engorgement with natural lactation. And then to have your chemistry skewed to produce about 20 percent more?

No wonder rBGH-injected cows suffer from what is called a "prolonged negative energy balance," resulting in weight loss, among other things.

The story of rBGH is, I should say straightaway, a very complicated and convoluted one. The saga has been developing for years, and it is not without some unfortunate political undertones. But that's another story, probably many stories, still to come.

What I'm interested in talking about here is -- at the very least -- the need for us to keep pushing for labeling of milk and milk products that come from cows injected with the bioengineered hormone. We have until Monday, March 14 -- when the "public comment" period runs out -- to make our opinions on labeling known to the FDA.

Cows are being injected with rBGH as we speak, so you'll want to know if your milk -- or cheese, ice cream, butter, beef -- is from creatures unlucky enough to be stuck behind their shoulders or on their rears with a potentially dangerous drug.

Among many, and my list is growing, here are some reasons to keep fighting for the labels, and to support those companies who pledge rBGH-free milk and other products:

* The risk of breast cancer. Samuel S. Epstein, a noted occupational and environmental medicine specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, sent a letter to the FDA on Feb. 14 outlining in detail his "grave concerns about the risks of breast cancer from consumption of rBGH milk."

He also wrote the FDA in 1989 outlining basically the same concerns about biosynthetic milk hormones. He and other scientists have subsequently published some alarming papers detailing potential hazards.

Among other things, Epstein cites research showing that rBGH in milk induces a sustained increase in Insulin Growth Factor (IGF-1), "a growth factor for human breast cancer cells, maintaining their malignancy, progression and invasiveness."

The American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs said in 1991, "Further studies will be required to determine whether ingestion of higher than normal concentrations of bovine insulin-like growth factor is safe for children, adolescents, and adults."

Epstein, who has not heard from the FDA -- "a fact that might be pointed out" -- accuses the agency of "classic gerrymandering of data bordering on the criminal" and offers to other researchers copies of scientific studies he has in hand.

"I am persuaded," he says, "on the basis of these data that milk from rBST cattle constitutes a significant risk factor for breast cancer.

"What is far more important: In spite of warnings, as long ago as 1989," says Epstein, "there has been no investigation of the matter."

Also waiting for a response from the FDA (to a May 24, 1993, letter) is the Consumer Policy Institute, the research arm of Consumers Union, publishers of Consumer Reports.

The venerable 58-year-old nonprofit research organization has never received a reply to a seven-page, detailed synopsis of scientific data backing up their "great concern" about approval of rBGH, IGF-1 and antibiotic use in dairy cows.

"I don't think they can refute the data," says Michael K. Hansen, a research associate with the institute.

"We are frankly amazed that FDA would approve a drug that increases the risk of disease in cattle (a 79 percent increase for clinical mastitis alone), has no therapeutic uses, and then not require labeling so that consumers can decide if they want to buy and consume such a product or not."

Because rBGH increases mastitis infections, that means, of course, that cows must be given more antibiotics. Sick cows need medicine.

We're already ingesting too many antibiotics, the result of which is an increasing number of drug-resistant infections. The current Newsweek calls the phenomenon "a 'medical disaster' in the making."

Meanwhile, here's an excerpt from a March 2, 1993, letter from the GAO (Government Accounting Office), watchdog arm of Congress, to Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala:

"The increase in mastitis levels reported in the rBGH pivotal studies suggests that the potential for an increase in milk antibiotic levels is very real.

"The approval of rBGH products," concludes the letter, "should not be forthcoming until the antibiotic risk is validly assessed. The Department's {FDA's} response suggests that our recommendations have not been seriously addressed."

Another point from Hansen: "Milk from rBGH-treated cows is likely to contain more pus and bacteria than milk from untreated cows."

And here's what it says right on the label for POSILAC, the brand name for Monsanto's rBGH:

"Use of POSILAC is associated with increased frequency of use of medication in cows for mastitis and other health problems. Cows injected with POSILAC are at an increased risk for clinical mastitis (visibly abnormal milk). The number of cows affected with clinical mastitis and the number of cases per cow may increase. In addition, the risk of subclinical mastitis (milk not visibly abnormal) is increased. In some herds, use of POSILAC has been associated with increases in somatic cell {a nice term for pus} counts."

Also on the label: "Use of POSILAC may result in reduced pregnancy rates in injected cows ... has also been associated with increases in cystic ovaries and disorders of the uterus during the treatment period ... "

Also: "Safety to replacement bulls from dairy cows injected with POSILAC has not been established."

Other disturbing information gleaned from conversations with Hansen, who has been tracking rBGH for about four years, and others:

* The longest study to assess the effects of rBGH on humans was 90 days, on rats.

* rBGH already is licensed for sale in Brazil, Mexico, and South Africa, and field trials have begun in Argentina, China, Egypt, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Tunisia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

* The European Community has a moratorium on use of the hormone, even though POSILAC is made in Austria and filled and packaged in the Netherlands; it's not approved in Canada and it's illegal in New Zealand and Australia.

One of the main arguments against labeling has been a claim that no test exists to distinguish between rBGH and the natural BGH. But according to the Council on Scientific Affairs of the American Medical Association (in a March, 1991, JAMA article), such a test would be fairly easy to develop.

To register your opinion on the labeling of rBGH milk, write: Dockets Management Branch (HFA-305), FDA, Room 123, 12420 Parklawn Dr., Rockville, Md. 20857. Write at the top of your letter: Docket #94D-0025.

And if you want to track your milk further, here are some places to go:

For information on rBGH and milk, write or call Michael K. Hansen, Consumer Policy Institute, Consumers Union, 101 Truman Ave., Yonkers, N.Y., 10703-1057. 1-914-378-2455. Enclose a 9-by-12 SASE.

For copies of peer-reviewed, published information related to potential health hazards of rBGH-produced milk: Samuel S. Epstein, professor of medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago, School of Public Health, 2121 West Taylor St., Chicago, Ill. 60612-7260; enclose $10 check made out to the Cancer Prevention Coalition Inc. Phone: 1-312-996-2297. Fax: 312-996-1374.

For a "special report," subtitled, "Cows Can't Say No -- But We Can," call the Humane Farming Association, 1-800-827-2253.

To track your food -- does it or does it not have rBGH? -- call the Pure Food Campaign. They'll provide an updated list of companies who have pledged in writing to avoid rBGH products, the names of about 2,000 restaurants and about 225 supermarkets. They'll also put you in touch with volunteers in your area, including schools, 1-800-253-0681.

Some companies who have responded to consumer pressure and announced early that they will not sell rBGH-treated products -- even though they may not be convinced themselves that there is any problem with the drug -- have reported, with some elation, a noticeable increase in sales.

"Greed," as someone said, "will win out over arrogance."