In the future, if you want milk free from the synthetic growth hormones injected into cows, you may have to go to Britain.
The British Ministry of Agriculture, Fishery and Foods is poised to ban bovine somatotropin (BST), a growth hormone that is used experimentally in the United States and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration contends is harmless.
Across the Atlantic, experts are more cautious. The European Community has imposed a one-year moratorium on BST in its member countries while the hormone's effects are studied. Last month, the Veterinary Products Committee that advises the British Agriculture Ministry gave a thumbs down to an application from Monsanto Co. to sell BST in Britain. The committee expects to take the same stand this month on an application from another U.S. manufacturer of BST, Eli Lilly & Co.
British Agriculture Minister John Gummer has not announced the final word on BST, but he told us, "It is my normal policy to accept the scientific advice of the advisory committee."
In the United States, the FDA has not issued a verdict on BST but has allowed experimental use in certain herds. Milk from those cows is sold without any special labeling. BST is supposed to increase milk output.
The FDA appears to be leaning toward approving BST for general use. Its current opinion is that BST presents "no health risk to consumers."
That's the same thing the FDA said about 102 drugs it approved between 1976 and 1985 -- drugs since found to have "serious post-approval risks" to consumers, according to a recent congressional investigation. That means the FDA was right less than half the time during the period studied in that investigation. Of 198 drugs approved, 102 turned out to be not as safe as FDA officials thought.
Consumers should be forgiven if they are wary of the FDA's infatuation with BST. Last year we reported on confidential studies conducted by three American BST manufacturers -- Monsanto, American Cyanamid Co. and Elanco (a division of Eli Lilly). Those studies showed that BST may harm dairy cows and cause fluctuations in milk quality.
The studies showed that a small number of cows injected with BST lose weight, have lower fertility rates and suffer anemia or inflammation of the mammary glands. Sources told us the British findings were similar to those in the secret studies done for the FDA.
A spokesman for the British Embassy told our associate Tim Warner that the decision by the Veterinary Products Committee to reject BST in Britain was "a technical and scientific conclusion based on information submitted by Monsanto, not a political one."
Despite the findings in Britain, the FDA and BST manufacturers continue to assert that BST is perfectly safe for cows and humans. The FDA went so far as to fire its top veterinary researcher on the BST project, Richard Burroughs, after he examined the research data submitted by the industry and refused to rubber-stamp it.
A number of U.S. grocery chains refuse to sell BST milk products. Ben and Jerry's, the ice cream company, goes out of its way to avoid BST milk and advertises that fact on its containers.