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Dirty Dairy

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By Robyn O'Brien with excerpts from The Unhealthy Truth

Having just learned from the journal Pediatrics that 15% of American girls are expected to begin puberty by the age of 7 (with the number closer to 25% for African American girls), I couldn't help but reflect on the fact that this hadn't been an issue for our mothers.

Our moms also didn't spend too much time standing on the sidelines at soccer games talking to other moms who had just undergone double mastectomies. And our moms didn't have to wonder if an artificial growth hormone, introduced into the American food supply in 1994, had anything to do with these increasing rates of early puberty and breast cancer in young women.

Because for the past 16+ years, much of our nation's milk has come from cows injected with a genetically engineered growth hormone. If you didn't know that, you're not alone. Since it was never labeled, most of us had no idea that this hormone was introduced into our dairy in 1994. The hormone has two interchangeable names: recombinant bovine somatropine (rBST) and recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH).

RBGH has dominated the milk market almost since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it in 1993. It was the first genetically engineered product ever brought to market. And the Associated Press (AP), the New York Times, and the rest of the media have called it "controversial" (the AP headline actually referred to it as "a bumper crop of controversy").

So it wasn't in the dairy that we consumed as kids. It simply hadn't been invented yet.

Dirty DairySo what is rBGH anyway? Although the product is made in a lab, it's designed to mimic a hormone that's naturally produced in a cow's pituitary glands. It's injected into cows every two weeks to boost their hormonal activity, causing them to produce an additional 10 to 15% more milk, or about one extra gallon each day. And within the first four years of its introduction in 1994, about one-third of the nation's cows were in herds being treated with this growth hormone.

If all you knew about rBGH and this hormone was that it increased milk production, you might think it was a good thing. Why shouldn't we use every means at our disposal to boost the supply of such a nutritious food?

Well, besides increasing milk production, rBGH apparently does a few other things, too.

First of all, the product seems to be hazardous to the cows. The package itself warns of such bovine problems as "increases in cystic ovaries and disorders of the uterus," "decreases in gestation length and birth weight of calves," and "increased risk of clinical mastitis." Mastitis is a painful type of udder infection that causes cows to pump out bacteria and pus along with milk, requiring treatment with antibiotics and other meds that can end up in the milk.

When I first read this, I had to stop because I simply did not want to know it. How many bottles and sippy cups had I filled with this milk? Why hadn't I known about rBGH when I was pouring countless bowls of cereal for my children? I shuddered at the thought that along with the milk, I had also been giving them doses of growth hormone and antibiotics, not to mention potentially exposing them to cow bacteria and udder pus. How had I not known that our dairy had gotten this dirty?

And then on top of that, allergies are the body's response to proteins that it considers "toxic invaders" and that genetically engineered proteins may spark new allergies. According to CNN and a recent study published in the Journal of Allergy and Immunology, milk allergy is now the most common food allergy in the U.S., having risen to the number-one position in the last 10 years. It's even starting to affect the sale of milk in schools. Might rBGH be a factor in that increase? We wouldn't have a clue. No human studies were conducted. Just ask your allergist when he or she is testing someone you love for a milk allergy if the test is for conventional milk, organic milk, or milk labeled "rbGH-free."

But let's get back to the cows, because rBGH can hurt them in several more ways. The label also warns of possible increase in digestive disorders, including diarrhea; increased numbers of lacerations on the cows' hocks (shins); and a higher rate of subclinical mastitis.

Those are just the problems acknowledged on the rBGH product label. But the Canadian federal health agency actually found that "the risk of clinical lameness was increased approximately 50 percent" in cows that were given rBGH. Partly as a result, Canada has banned the product, concluding that it "presents a sufficient and unacceptable threat to the safety of dairy cows."

RBGH is banned in other developed countries but not in the U.S.

Canada isn't the only country to ban rBGH. The genetically altered hormone has also been banned in the European Union, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand. In addition, the U.N. agency that sets food safety standards, Codex Alimentarius, has refused to approve rGBH not just once but twice.

Farmers themselves have noticed problems with the product. In addition to the expense of the drug itself, rBGH results in higher feed bills, higher vet bills due to increased antibiotic use, and more cows removed from the herd due to illness or low productivity. One study found that 25 to 40% of dairy farmers who tried rBGH soon gave it up because it wasn't profitable enough to justify the damage to their cows. Other farmers have said that they see how hard the product is on cows, and they don't want to subject their animals to such treatment.

Okay, so that's why rBGH hurts cows. But I'm way more concerned about us and our kids. How does having a genetically altered hormone in our milk supply affect us?

Health concerns include possible link to cancer

As early as 1998, an article in the Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, reported that women with even relatively small increases of a hormone known as Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1) were up to seven times more likely to develop premenopausal breast cancer.

And guess what? According to a January 1996 report in the International Journal of Health Services, rBGH milk has up to 10 times the IGF-1 levels of natural milk. More recent studies have put the figure even higher, at something like 20-fold.

Now stop and think about that for a minute. While correlation is not causation, breast cancer used to be something that women got later in life. Premenopausal breast cancer was so rare that when young women presented their physicians with breast cancer symptoms, the doctors often failed to diagnose it, simply because it was so unlikely that an "older women’s disease" would be found among young women.

But according to the Young Survival Coalition, one in 229 women between the ages of 30 and 39 will be diagnosed with breast cancer in the next 10 years. Why are all these young women now getting breast cancer? And what about the effects of IGF-1-laden milk on older women, who are already at greater risk for breast cancer?

In case you think that the rising cancer rates have something to do with genetics, stop and think again. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, one in eight women now have breast cancer. But only 10% of those cases can be linked to genetics. In other words, 90% of breast cancers being diagnosed today are being triggered by factors in our environment.

How did this happen?

Now if you're like me, your next question probably is, So, if we know all of this, how did this hormone find its way into our dairy products? How did our government agencies, responsible for ensuring the safety of our food, allow the use of this growth hormone and the sale of IGF-1-laden milk? Why was rBGH not used in Europe, Japan, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, but used so freely right here in our own United States?

Well, the year before the FDA approved the first genetically engineered protein, it said, "Ultimately, it is the food producer who is responsible for assuring safety." But at the same time, the corporate communication's director of the company introducing rBGH said, "We should not have to vouchsafe the safety of biotech food. Our interest is in selling as much of it as possible. Assuring its safety is the F.D.A.'s job." You read that right. It's kind of a "Who's on first?" routine.

So with the jury still out on this one, no long-term human trials ever conducted, a self-regulated industry whose "interest is in selling as much of it as possible," the increasing rates of antibiotics used on our livestock (not to mention the increasing rates of early puberty and cancer), and the stunning fact that this synthetic growth hormone was never approved for use in Canada, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and all 27 countries in Europe, maybe it's time we start to exercise a little bit of precaution here in the U.S., too.

How to opt out of rBGH

Thankfully, we can opt out of this experiment and look for milk labeled "organic" since by law, this milk is produced without the use of growth hormones, toxic persistent pesticides, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and antibiotics. Another option is "rBGH-free" or "rBST-free," which are produced without these synthetic growth hormones (but still rely on the use of antibiotics, fertility hormones, and other chemicals prohibited in organic production). You can find both organic and rBST-free or rBGH-free milks at Wal-Mart, Costco, and Sam's.

And while correlation is not causation, with the American Cancer Society telling us that one in two American men and one in three American women are expected to get cancer in their lifetimes, and the Centers for Disease Control reporting that cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children under the age of 15, a precautionary move like this one just might be what the doctors ordered (at least that's what they did in all 27 countries in Europe, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the UK, and Japan).

Robyn O'BrienA former food industry analyst, author, Fulbright grant recipient, and mother of four, Robyn O'Brien brings compassion, insight, and detailed analysis to her research on the health of American families. She has been called "food's Erin Brockovich" by the New York Times.

Following her career as an analyst, Robyn had four children and founded the visionary organization, www.allergykidsfoundation.org, which is focused on restoring the health of the American children. On Mother's Day 2009, Random House published her critically acclaimed book, The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick and What We Can Do About It, and today, Robyn is regarded as a health expert and sought-after speaker who lectures extensively, appearing on national broadcasts that include CNN, ABC's Good Morning America, and NBC's TODAY.

She has written pieces for the Washington Post, Martha Stewart's Whole Living, and other media. She has been named by SHAPE magazine as one of 2009's "Women To Shape the World," along with First Lady Michelle Obama; was named by Forbes Woman as one of "20 Inspiring Women to Follow on Twitter;" and most recently the Discovery Channel named her one of its 15 Top Visionaries. Her TEDx talk, delivered in Austin, has been widely received.

Robyn's work is recognized and supported by renowned individuals such as Robert Kennedy Jr., Ted Turner, Dr. Oz, Bonnie Raitt, and Prince Charles.

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