Milk isn't for everyone, according to a new lawsuit demanding that each and every carton sold in Washington carry a warning label for people who are unable to tolerate it.
Filed yesterday in D.C. Superior Court by an organization that promotes vegetarian diets, the suit charges that Giant, Safeway and other milk retailers have failed to warn lactose-intolerant consumers of the risks of drinking milk.
At a morning news conference, where the coffee was lightened with soy milk, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine accused doctors and the dairy companies of failing to address the problem of lactose intolerance, particularly among people of African, Asian and Hispanic descent.
"The health of Americans of color has been sacrificed on the altar of dairy industry profits," said Milton Mills, a physician who is black and the lead plaintiff in the case. "Millions of Americans are being misled and made to suffer unnecessary illness by industry marketing campaigns that are masquerading as health information."
Blacks, Asians and Hispanics are much more likely to have low levels of the enzyme needed to break down lactose, the predominant sugar in milk. As many as 75 percent of African Americans and 90 percent of Asian Americans are lactose intolerant, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse.
But two national experts say the gastrointestinal problems that can result are far less prevalent than the lawsuit claims and are hardly the basis for a warning label.
"This is not a health hazard," said Richard J. Grand, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School who has studied lactose for about 30 years. "It's made out to be a health problem, but it isn't."
People who have low levels of lactase -- the enzyme that breaks down lactose -- but want to consume milk products can adapt, Grand said. Introducing milk in modest, managed amounts over several weeks typically builds the capacity to break down lactose, he said; given milk's nutritional value, that is often preferable.
Michael D. Levitt, a gastroenterologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Minneapolis, said his studies have shown that modest intake of milk by people with low lactase does not produce a notable increase in the symptoms associated with lactose intolerance such as severe abdominal cramping and excessive flatulence.
Last year, the National Medical Association, an organization of black physicians, issued a report saying that a majority of African Americans were not consuming enough dairy products and urging increased consumption of such foods.
It was hardly the picture painted by the physicians committee and the plaintiffs, who said the problem of lactose intolerance is widespread and compared it to bacterial infections or peanut allergies. But unlike peanut allergies, for example, which can lead to death, lactose intolerance has never killed anyone, the experts said.
Even so, a warning label is warranted, Mills said. "It might not be fatal, but it is extremely distressing," he said. "I am not talking about discomfort. I am talking about illness."
The lawsuit wants a judge to require a label like this on all milk sold in the District: "Warning -- Lactose Intolerant Individuals May Experience Bloating, Diarrhea, or Other Gastrointestinal Discomfort From Consuming Milk. Check With Your Physician."
"What is important," Mills said, "is providing people the information they need to protect their health."
The lawsuit is not the first time that the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has dueled with the dairy industry in court. In June, the group filed a lawsuit accusing the industry of defrauding the public by claiming in ads that people could lose weight by consuming more dairy products. The industry has stood by its claim that consuming dairy products helps with weight loss when coupled with calorie restriction.
A spokeswoman for the National Dairy Council said the suit over lactose intolerance oversimplifies the issue.
"People who are sensitive to lactose certainly can enjoy dairy products," said the spokeswoman, dietitian Deanna Segrave-Daly. "To cut an entire food group out of your diet when you don't have to is detrimental to your health."
A spokesman for Giant Food, based in Landover, declined comment.