the “got milk” paradox

[From my blog post with the Cornell Daily Sun]

Over Spring Break, I was perusing the aisles of Wegmans in search of milk to stock my family’s refrigerator. Like many consumers, I usually just go for the cheaper brand, instead of paying attention to labels. In the midst of sending a text and referencing my shopping list, however, something caught my eye: A brightly colored decal on the glass, refrigerator door that read, “Our farmers have pledged to not treat any of their cows with any artificial growth hormones.”

I grabbed my milk — which also had this label — and hurried along with my shopping cart. The thought of this “pledge” to not use recombinant bovine somatotropin hormone (rBST) was lingering in my head as I passed the other dairy products. I started analyzing the butter, yogurt and cheese, and, to my astonishment, virtually none of them had similar labels! This paradox seemed absurd to me: Why does America seem to care so much about their fluid milk not containing rBST, yet does not appear to think twice when it comes to other dairy products?

First of all, rBST seems to be such an issue among consumers because advertising and mass media provide a great deal of negative information about this hormone. However, not much effort has been made to counteract marketing’s scare-tactic with hard-core science.

The bovine form of somatotropin hormone is not recognized by the human body, so, the body breaks it down. Chemical digestion denatures the protein into usable amino acids, like any other food-stuff. Ironically, according to Cornell Professor Dale Bauman’s research, “Given that there is no test to validate lack of use a certificate signed by the producer was accepted as adequate verification that BST was not being used.” Read between the lines: Because the synthetic version of BST is molecularly identical to somatotropin that naturally occurs in the milk, it cannot be detected whether or not it exists in any milk sold to you as fluid milk, yogurt, ice cream at Wegman’s or even at Cornell.

Somehow, Haagen-Daz and Cornell Dairy Bar ice cream (or any kinds, for that matter), butter, cheeses and even yogurt have evaded the skepticism surrounding rBST. Chobani — one of the fastest growing start-ups in history — has taken a stab at [obviously successful] advertising. They claim on the label, “According to the FDA, no significant difference has been shown between milk from rBST treated cows and untreated cows.”

As seen with labels in Wegman’s, it is a common consensus that consumers of fluid milk are concerned. I was curious, however, how concerned and knowledgeable Cornell students are with the well-known smorgasbord of dairy products on our campus. According to Jason Huck, general manager of Cornell Dairy Operations, the opening of the new Dairy Bar and Plant within the next school year will not only begin the continued production of milk products on campus, but it will also mark an important step in giving Cornell’s food and dairy departments a new public face. The new plant will have a glass observation window for visitors to view milk product packaging.

This will also provide an opportunity to educate the public about the dairy industry’s environmental sustainability and public health initiatives. Bulk fluid milk on campus is currently being supplied by Crowley and Hood — both of which abide by the “pledge” to sell rBST-free milk; milk for Cornell yogurt, pudding and egg nog is currently being supplied from Crowley and Hood, as well. Perry’s — based in Akron, NY — is currently supplying ice cream. When the Dairy Plant reopens, it will use ten percent of the Teaching and Research Farm’s milk production to create all dairy products on campus. Huck noted that students do occasionally contact Cornell Dining to inquire about where their milk actually comes from — but not as often as I expected.

Whether or not you choose to consume products with rBST — or any dairy products for that matter — is entirely your right as a consumer. Consider, though: Are you being dragged down by the popular media or product labels/advertising, or have you done your own research? If you avoid “non-organic” milk products for fear of what this synthetic hormone will do to you or our environment, I would re-consider, first, the use of insulin (both recombinant bovine somatotropin hormone and the insulin available today are made with recombinant DNA technology) as well as synthetic birth control.

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