3-Way Race for the Gold Cup of Wacky

February 09, 1994|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON — Washington.--The growing furor over the safety of milk from cows hyped up to super production by a bio-engineered hormone is best understood as a three-way competition in irrational antics.

There are the manufacturers, led by Monsanto, which received approval to market a man-made hormone to stimulate the output of milk -- a product so chronically in overflowing surplus that it needs no stimulation. Generically known as bovine somatotropin or bovine growth hormone, Monsanto's version is sold under a more appealing name: Posilac. On the list of unneeded scientific discoveries, it deserves an elevated place.

Then there are consumer groups, raging against Posilac and similar products on the way to market. They're stirred by bio-tech phobias and disbelief in scientific assurances that the man-made milk-production stimulant mimics nature's own version in cows and is undetectable in dairy products.

Actually, scientists say it's OK, safe and indistinguishable from the real thing. But, fearing consumer boycotts, scores of supermarket chains around the country have banned products produced with the man-made hormone.

Finally, there's the Food and Drug Administration, which has rejected demands that labels identify foods produced with the stuff. Since the best analytical techniques can find no trace of it, the FDA explains, there's no basis for imposing a labeling requirement on food packages. As for labeling to provide peace of mind for concerned consumers, the FDA says that's not the way the system works.

Compared with worried consumers and the regulation-bound FDA, the manufacturers of the bovine hormone have a commanding lead in the race for the gold cup for wacky behavior. Since America does not lack a plentiful supply of cheap milk, the puzzle is why they devoted over a decade and scores of millions of dollars to solving a non-existent problem.

Milk has long been overabundant because of super-feeds, better breeding techniques and computer-assisted, smarter farm management. Then came the cholesterol and anti-fat panics, leading to mass avoidance of dairy products. As milk consumption per capita declined, while production per cow went up, dairy farms have disappeared by the thousands. Mountains of butter and cheese, bought by the government to sustain farm income, were finally brought under control by financial incentives to slaughter dairy herds. Even so, America has plenty of milk.

The performance of the FDA in this matter does invite wonder. Public fears of genetics research and bio-engineered products have been encouraged and exploited by various zealots, notably Jeremy Rifkin, an ingenious rabble-rouser.

By all the measures of objective science there are no grounds for concern about adverse health effects from the man-made version of the bovine hormone. But many people are nonetheless fearful, and don't want to consume foods that contain the HTC product, nor expose their children to risk.

In this circumstance, the industry and its government regulator are displaying an experts-know-best arrogance. A Monsanto question-and-answer ''fact sheet'' addressed the question of whether milk produced with man-made bovine somatotropin (BST) should be labeled as such. Answer: ''No. Milk from BST-supplemented cows is safe and no different from any other milk. In fact, there is no way to tell the difference between milk from supplemented and non-supplemented cows. A label would imply a hazard where there is none.''

Mr. Rifkin has put out a list of over 150 supermarket chains, food manufacturers, dairy cooperatives and school districts that have climbed on the bandwagon against the use of artificial hormones for stimulating milk production. More are coming in, he says.

The sensible way out of this is to label the products and let the public choose, even though a label might imply a hazard. But it's difficult to be sensible about a gee-whiz method to do something silly.

Daniel S. Greenberg is a syndicated columnist specializing in the politics of science and health.

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