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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Testing of BGH

Air Date: Week of

The National Farmers Union wants to aid farmers in deciding to use BGH or not. They are funding research to develop a standardized test separate from the manufacturers own test conclusions. Kelly Griffin reports from Denver, Colorado.


CURWOOD: The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Bovine Growth Hormone in part because they say they can find no difference between the natural hormone and the one made by Monsanto. As FDA Chief David Kessler put it, quote, "It's not possible, using current scientific techniques, to tell them apart. But others insist that there is a difference, and a farmer's group is developing a test for synthetic BGH which could help consumers make an informed choice at the grocery store. From Denver, Kelly Griffin of Colorado Public Radio has our report.

GRIFFIN: When the FDA declared synthetic BGH undetectable in milk, it didn't make sense to members of the National Farmer's Union, says spokesman Clay Peterson.

PETERSON: It stands to reason that, um, you know, if one product is produced naturally and another product's produced with an artificial hormone or an artificial stimulant of some kind, there ought to be a way chemically to test that.

GRIFFIN: The group turned to Frank Vulkowski, who heads the New Jersey-based Cara Biologicals, which has developed home pregnancy test kits. Vulkowski wouldn't be interviewed on tape, but he says he's discovered the synthetic hormone has an amino acid chain the natural hormone doesn't have. Vulkowski says the test would use treated strips similar to a home pregnancy test. A few drops of milk would turn the strip red if the synthetic hormone is present. Vulkowski estimates the tests would cost less than $1 apiece. If the test works, it could change the politics of the debate over the synthetic hormone. Consumers who don't want to buy milk from treated cows could be certain of what they're buying, and producers who don't use BGH could put teeth in their claims to be synthetic hormone-free. Peterson says the Farmer's Union, made up of small family farmers, doesn't want to scare people away from dairy products with the synthetic hormone. But he says the test could help consumers make an informed choice between a regular dairy product and one that's produced with an artificial hormone.

PETERSON: If there's a test that's easily applicable in milk in a bulk tank or even in a milk carton at the store, then it seems to me the FDA's job is that much easier to differentiate between the two.

GRIFFIN: Right now, the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, has set strict limits on labels, in part because there's been no test to distinguish milk from cows treated with the hormone. Dairies can only say their cows are not given the hormone. They can't claim their milk is free of it. And the FDA says if dairies mention BGH on the label, they must include a disclaimer, saying there's no difference in the milk. These labeling rules suit many in the dairy industry, says Richard Weiss of the Dairy Coalition, a group representing most major milk processors. Weiss says the test could spell trouble for producers who do use the growth hormone if it alters how milk is labeled.

WEISS: If it's used in such a manner as to imply that other milk is dangerous, then I think it is a problem.

GRIFFIN: So far, the Dairy Coalition needn't worry. FDA spokesman Andrew Lazaro says the test doesn't alter the agency's other reason for placing limits on labeling. Lazaro says even if the hormone, also known as RBFT, is detectable in milk, it doesn't mean there's a difference in the product.

LAZARO: We stand behind its safety. Safety for humans, safety for the animals, safety for the environment. That will not change by a test that detects whether the milk I'm drinking, the milk you're drinking, does have RBFT in it.

GRIFFIN: Meanwhile, Monsanto, which makes synthetic BGH, is using the FDA guidelines to put pressure on dairies that don't use the hormone. Monsanto sued 2 dairies over their synthetic hormone-free claims, and the dairies agreed in out of court settlements to change their labels and ads. And the company has sent warning letters to other dairies around the country. Peterson of the Farmer's Union says dairies won't be so easily cowed by Monsanto if the test works. The group is paying for further research to determine whether a test for synthetic BGH can be made commercially viable. Peterson says they hope to have the research ready for FDA scrutiny within a year. For Living on Earth, I'm Kelly Griffin in Denver.



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