By MaryBeth Matzek
You would not know it by today’s marketing campaigns and headlines, but recombinant bovine somatrotropin, or rbST, has been used safely in cows since the 1990s.
Cows naturally produce bovine somatotropin (bST) – which tells their bodies to produce milk. In 1993, the Federal Drug Administration approved the use of rbST in animals after researchers developed and tested rbST for more than 10 years. Chris Galen, senior vice president for communication for the National Milk Producers Federation, said a cow’s body treats and processes rbST the same way as it does bST and other protein hormones.
“If you tested an animal for it, you could not tell if they were on it,” he said. “With rbST,
cows can produce about one more gallon of milk a day without changing the safety or quality of dairy products.”
The use of rbST garnered increased attention last spring when Elanco, which makes and markets rbST under the brand name Posilac, sued Arla Foods in federal court claiming the international company’s “Live Unprocessed” advertising campaign was deceptive and untrue.
The Arla advertising campaign was built on a child’s interpretation of what rbST is and then brings that perception to life as an animated six-eyed monster with razor-sharp horns and electrified fur. Elanco’s complaint stated the campaign deceives consumers by providing them with false notions of rbST’s safety. In mid-June, a judge issued a preliminary injunction to stop Arla from running the $30 million “Live Unprocessed” campaign.
In the ruling, U.S. Districit Court Chief Judge William Griesbach said the ad “is not puffery – this is a misleading campaign.”
Jamie Jonker, vice president of sustainability and scientific affairs for the National Milk Producers Federation, said while rbST has a long and safe history, food manufacturers began pushing 12 years ago for milk from cows that did not received extra hormones for fluid milk sales.
“Companies are always looking for ways to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and one way of doing that is to have a ‘clean’ label,” he said.
The battle over rbST is now moving into the cheese market – Arla was using its deceptive campaign to get consumers to buy its cheese over competitors as food manufacturers are looking to differentiate their products and the prospect of having that “clean label” is appealing, Galen said.
“More farms in the Midwest produce milk for cheese products so now the whole rbST debate is really hitting home,” he said. “History tells us there is a bandwagon effect: if one company starts producing cheese with rbST-free milk, others will follow.”
Galen said some consumers are wrongly afraid of the word “hormone.”
“It sounds frightening, but it isn’t. This hormone is in milk already, but this is the synthetic version and there’s not a real difference,” he said. “rbST just helps cows produce milk more efficiently.”
Since food processors cannot test for rbST in milk, they rely on farmers to sign papers stating they plan to not use the synthetic hormone, Jonker said. “You are relying on a paper trail to make that rbST-free claim,” he said.
Jonker likes to remind skeptics that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all veterinary medications to go through the same stringent approval process that human medications go through, with the additional requirement it is tested to ensure resulting food products from the animal are safe for people to eat.
If farmers did not use rbST, dairy farms would become less sustainable, with the United States needing more than 200,000 additional cows to match the dairy production farmers get by using the rbST.
Those additional cows would increase the industry’s carbon footprint. For example, the use of rbST saves 95.6 billion gallons of water annually, said Mike Hutjens, a professor emeritus with the University of Illinois.
“Products like rbST greatly improve farmers’ impact on the environment without changing the composition, quality or nutrition of the milk their cows produce,” Hutjens said in an Elanco news release about the lawsuit. “We should not ignore science and technology that have been proven safe and effective for the sake of marketing claims that confuse consumers.”