NEWS

Hormones dwindling in milk

Steve Tarter

Maybe the new slogan for milk should be "Got hormones?"

Increasingly, the answer is no as giant retailers like Wal-Mart and Kroger now only sell milk without the artificial growth hormone rBST.

The hormone, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1993, increases milk production in cows but has come under fire from critics who cited health risks.

About 18 percent of U.S. dairy cows receive the hormone, according to industry statistics.

"In selling rBST-free milk, we are providing our customers with the milk they've requested," said spokeswoman Caren Epstein for Wal-Mart, the nation's largest grocery retailer with more than 4,000 stores.

"I put a lot of pressure on Wal-Mart about milk," said Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, generally regarded as the leader in the fight against hormone-treated milk.

In his 2006 book, "What's in Your Milk," Epstein said rBST produced high levels of insulin growth factor 1, which has been linked to higher risks of breast, colon and prostate cancer.

"The evidence is unarguable. (The hormone) also creates a wide range of toxic effects on cows," he said.

Epstein said he submitted a petition to the FDA last year calling for the agency to withdraw the hormone from the market. "I've received no response," he said.

Fred Rosenbohm, a Peoria dairy farmer with 120 cows, has watched the hormone controversy for years. "When Monsanto brought it out, it was sold as a way to get cows to make more milk. A lot of people used it. We never used it. I thought my cows were doing fine," he said.

"We have a lot of tours here," said Rosenbohm of Linden Hill Farms, located near the Gen. Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport. "The first thing the mothers ask is whether we use hormones or not," he said.

"It's a consumer-driven product and people don't seem to want it," said Rosenbohm.

After years of marketing the hormone as Posilac, St. Louis-based Monsanto recently sold the product to Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly Co. Monsanto spokesman Darren Wallis denied that the company got tired of defending its position.

"The Posilac business was very strong and the product provided exceptional value to producers. Monsanto elected to focus on our core seeds and traits business. Eli Lilly and Elanco were a very good fit as Elanco is fully focused on animal health and productivity," he said.

While the dairy industry is responding to health issues, it's already proved adept in reducing its carbon footprint, said University of Illinois Extension dairy specialist Mike Hutjens.

"Using pounds of carbon dioxide per gallon of milk as the carbon footprint value, the dairy industry's footprint has dropped from 31 pounds per gallon of milk in 1944 to 12 pounds per gallon in 2007," he said.

"The number of dairy cows has dropped from 25.6 million (in 1944) to 9.2 million (in 2007) while milk production has increased from 117 billion pounds to 186 billion pounds," said Hutjens.

While organic milk is on the rise, it only makes up 2 to 2.5 percent of the total milk market, he said. Switching to organic milk production would require 25 percent more cows than now being used and 30 percent more land for feed production, said Hutjens.

Steve Tarter can be reached at (309) 686-3260 orstarter@pjstar.com.