CANADA

Messing with milk

Controversy rages over injecting a cow hormone

MARK NICHOLS July 31 1995
CANADA

Messing with milk

Controversy rages over injecting a cow hormone

MARK NICHOLS July 31 1995

Messing with milk

CANADA

During the 1980s, the giant Monsanto Co. of St. Louis, Mo., and other U.S. pharmaceutical firms spent millions of dollars tinkering with one of Mother Nature’s most beloved products: cow’s milk. They did not want to change it; they just wanted to produce more of it through a genetically engineered hormone. Approved for use in the United States in November, 1993, recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is currently being used by about 10 per cent of U.S. dairy farmers. But regulators in the European Union, Australia and New Zealand have all blocked use of the hormone. And in Canada, the companies’ efforts to win federal approval for rBST have triggered opposition from a broadly based front of specialinterest groups. Their concerns range from whether it makes sense to increase milk production in Canada—to whether the hormone could pose a health risk to humans. Many Canadians simply do not like the idea of scientists messing around with milk. “We get letters from consumers almost every day,” says Kempton Matte, president of the National Dairy Council of Canada. “People are saying, ‘Don’t tamper with dairy products.’ ”

The outcry has so far stalled efforts by the two Canadian producers—Monsanto Canada Inc. and Eli Lilly Canada Inc.—to market their product. After holding public hearings on the issue in March, 1994, the House of Commons standing committee on agriculture persuaded Agriculture Minister Ralph Goodale to declare a one-year moratorium on the introduction of rBST while a joint industry-government task force investigated its safety. But when the task force report was released last April, it glossed over health concerns. Angry opponents of the substance—including the Dairy Council, the National Farmers Union and the Consumers’ Association of Canada—called for a new moratorium, which would prevent use of rBST even if Ottawa’s Health Protection Branch approved the companies’ application. Meanwhile, the Ottawa-based Council of Canadians, a nationalistic watchdog group that opposes the use of rBST, has accused the drug companies of employing strong-arm tactics. “They have a small army of lobbyists pressuring members of Parliament,” says Alex Boston, a council researcher. “The companies are trying to run

roughshod over our regulatory process.”

Does Canada actually need more milk? Under Canada’s dairy marketing system, provincial milk boards allocate a share of production to individual dairy farmers, who are then required to stay within specific quotas. The system is easily supplying the country’s domestic needs, with some milk left over for export. “We don’t need this product,” says Wayne Easter, a Liberal member of Parliament who runs a herd of 60 dairy cows in southern Prince Edward Island and has spearheaded opposition to rBST. ft some Canadian farmers increased milk production, they would not be able to sell it without buying the quotas originally assigned to other farmers. And those farmers, says Easter, “would have to get out of production—it doesn’t make sense.” The government could, in turn, increase quotas— but there would probably be little overseas demand for the surplus.

There are also concerns among farmers about the effects of rBST on animal health. While injections of the hormone can increase milk production for some cows by up to 15 per cent, that is often accompanied by a higherthan-usual incidence of mastitis, an inflammation of the cow’s udder. Reports submitted to the federal U.S. Food and Drug Administration show that American dairy farmers have

experienced other problems with their herds that could be linked to use of the hormone, including premature calving and aborted births.

Despite the lack of any hard evidence, questions persist about whether the hormone could also lead to human health problems. The suspicions stem from the biochemical activity of rBST itself. To in. crease milk output in cows, the I pharmaceutical companies I used genetic-engineering tech! nology to make multiple copies ! of a hormone that occurs natuJ rally in cows. Injected into cows, the extra dose of horj mone triggers increased levels of a chemical called insulin-like I growth factor-1 (IGF-1), which I can increase milk production 1 by increasing the flow of nutriI ents to the cow’s udder.

Treating cows with rBST causes IGF-1 levels in milk to increase slightly—but the pharmaceutical companies insist that the growth factor is broken down in the human digestive tract. Some researchers, however, are not satisfied. In an article last summer in the Canadian Journal of Animal Science, Dr.

0 Elliot Block, a physiologist at | Montreal’s McGill University, § concluded that “many potential

1 effects of ingested IGF-1 on the I gastrointestinal tract and local

° immune system of the gut need to be explored.”

Adding to the concern is the fact that other scientists, in research unrelated to rBST, have examined a possible role of IGF-1 in cancer. Monsanto officials insist that they have already investigated all possible health risks. “This is one of the most tested animal health products ever made,” says Bob Toth, director of animal science for Monsanto Canada Inc. in Mississauga, Ont. “It has been tested and confirmed that rBST does not cause malignant transformation of normal human cells.”

The controversial hormone is in the vanguard of a flood of genetically engineered food products that will soon begin reaching the marketplace. In February, Ottawa approved the genetically altered FLAVR SAVR tomato, which is billed as staying in its prime longer. But officials of Calgene Inc., the Davis, Calif.-based producer, said they had not yet decided when the tomatoes will go on sale in Canada. Still, an Angus Reid survey in May showed growing concern among Canadians about food safety, and more than half of those surveyed were specifically worried about rBST—a finding that could mean that consumer resistance may slow the coming era of genetically altered foods.

MARK NICHOLS