On the Side: Hormones in milk: Don't ask, don't tell?

Posted: January 17, 2008

HARRISBURG - When you've got 10,000 competitors showing off prize steers and goats and rodeo moves - a fair number of them teenage future farmers spending the night - you can bet hormones will enter the picture.

Not that anyone was mentioning that out loud here last week as the state Farm Show wrapped up its yearly run in the sort of balmy weather more associated with planting season.

In that let's-not-notice particular, though, the show was a metaphor for the dirty little secret roiling the Pennsylvania dairy industry this winter.

A lot of cows are being routinely injected with performance-enhancing drugs; synthetic hormones, to be precise.

But there's an official code of silence. No need to broadcast the fact on the side of a milk carton. In fact, best not to mention their absence (in all-natural milk), even, lest a consumer get the wrong impression; the drugs boost milk production, but they haven't in a single study been proven unsafe for humans.

As things stand - albeit unsteadily - Dennis Wolff, the state ag secretary, has ruled that the whole business is really none of your business; that milk is naturally replete with hormones, and without a reliable test to detect the Monsanto-made artificial extras, dairies who label it "Hormone-Free" or even "No Synthetic Hormones" are, well, making unverifiable or, worse, misleading claims.

This has not gone over well with some dairies - central Pennsylvania's Rutter's Dairy chief among them - that advertise their milk as free of added hormones. And it hasn't sat well with a number of retailers. Or with a slew of consumers freshly concerned about weird chemicals in food.

So instead of the hammer coming down for good on Jan. 1, as was planned, the no no-hormones labeling deadline has been postponed until Feb. 1; and a whiff of strategic retreat is in the air.

No current test has revealed a human health threat from Monsanto-ized milk. (In fact, ice cream lovers buying Ben & Jerry's no-added-hormone pints might better look to the saturated fat levels on the label if they're worried about their health.)

But as a former dairy chemist at the show pointed out, it took decades to pin down the human health hazards of formaldehyde and asbestos.

In the public arenas, no occasion was lost to remind visitors of the rural joys and economic muscle of milk. The endless movie above lines that snaked 30 deep in front of the milkshake stand issued warnings about "crippling osteoporosis" caused by calcium deficiency and celebrated cows eating "a better-balanced diet than humans do," and corn feed tastily supplemented with byproducts of pretzels, chocolate and citrus.

The Milk Marketing Board handed out coloring books: "Milk is full of good things that keep you healthy and strong." A cadre of tiara-crowned Dairy Princesses dispensed dairy wisdom: A cow drinks 30 gallons of water a day. Enough to fill a bathtub!

But nowhere - unless you asked - were you likely to encounter a single, voluntary word about hormones.

If you did ask, on the other hand, you found farmers who were happy to forgo the costly injections for a premium on their milk, small farmers who quit using because it didn't pay, farmers worried that they'd lose their no-added-hormones premium if dairies couldn't label milk that way. (Presently, 25 to 30 percent of farmers are said to be using the synthetic hormones.)

It wasn't lost on some that there were echoes, as well, of the performance-enhancing-drug scandal bouncing around the big leagues: The Monsanto bovine-growth hormones (marketed as Posilac) are injected every two weeks, ideally boosting milk production by 10 percent, though they've been banned in Canada and Europe for degrading the health status of herds.

A visitor could leave the Farm Show oblivious to any of this, assured only that raw-milk prices are at all-time highs, that dairy pumps billions into the state economy, that cows keep our hillsides free and our bones strong.

It is a pretty picture. And while it may not be the whole truth, one could go forth thankful that the agriculture secretary had only our best interests at heart when he ruled - temporarily, at least - that we can't handle the whole truth.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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