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Sandy and Aaron Stauffer with their herd. Photo: Julie Grant
Sandy and Aaron Stauffer with their herd. Photo: Julie Grant

Why milk containers send mixed messages

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When you go to the supermarket dairy aisle, there are so many milks to choose from: different brands, fat contents, and prices. One thing they all have in common is a label that says something like "our farmers pledge they do not inject their cows with artificial growth hormone." The containers also state that there's no difference in the milk from cows with or without those hormones.

So what's going on here? Why are our milk containers sending mixed messages? And what does it mean for North Country dairy farms that use growth hormones on their cows?

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

Most shoppers opening the door to the milk case at the grocery store in Canton, NY, this afternoon have never noticed the mention of growth hormones on the containers. Jerry Olmstead picks up a couple jugs.

"I grab milk, that's just me. I just don't care."

But some people do care. Johanna Lee is a mother and employee at SUNY Canton. She's got a half gallon of organic milk in her cart.

"I'm against any kind of additives in general. So whenever I can get something without, I definitely will. I don't think it's good to put extra stuff into your food. It goes into your body, it's not healthy."

As the number of people who want to know what's in their food has grown, there's been a push toward labeling foods that contain genetically modified organisms. So far milk is one of the only ones that's labeled. Ironically, the labels don't say milk contains GMOs – it wants consumers to know it DOESN'T contain them.

The Stauffers have a herd of 1,500.  Photo: Julie Grant
The Stauffers have a herd of 1,500. Photo: Julie Grant
This is all very frustrating to Sandy and Aaron Stauffer. The father and son run a 1,500 cow dairy in the town of Lawrence, in St. Lawrence County.

Sandy says they started farming in 1977, when Aaron was just a baby. In 1994, Monsanto came out with recombinant bovine growth hormone. It's often called rBGH or rBST. Farmers could give cows a shot every two weeks to increase milk production.

"At that time, I'm trying to think, we had about 100 cows, and we used it on all cows that were eligible for it to be used on. And I think in general we still do, and have done through the years, ever since the product became available."

I ask why he started using the hormones.

"I believed in product, I believe in technology. They had research showed 10lb per cow increase in milk production, and that is in fact what we found. As we started using it, the cows immediately went up, and if took a cow off it, she immediately dropped back. It was like night and day. There was no question about it being effective."

A closer look at the Stauffers' modern milking station. Photo: Julie Grant
A closer look at the Stauffers' modern milking station. Photo: Julie Grant
The Stauffers milk 1,300 cows three times a day. The milking parlor is high tech. A line of cows walks into the stations. Their udders are huge, and heavy with milk. Workers clean the teats and attach milking hoses. A digital readout shows how much each is producing. If a cow doesn't meet expectations, they check her health.

The Stauffers stand behind rBST. But critics say bovine growth hormones are bad for human health, and for cows.  And the years of criticism have affected the Stauffer farm's business. Sandy says their milk now largely goes toward cheese, because other dairy products won't take it.

New York's booming yogurt companies want rBST-free milk. And as we found, containers at the supermarket boast that the milk inside isn't produced with growth hormones.

Stauffer doesn't like it.

"There is no reason for that, except for marketing. That is pure marketing."

Not everyone agrees.

Martin Donohoe is an adjunct professor with the school of community health at Portland State University in Oregon. He also works with a national group called Physicians for Social Responsibility, which has lobbied against the use of bovine growth hormones.

Donohoe says it's significant that Monsanto developed rBST and then sold it to Eli Lilly for $300 million.

"It served as a perfect example of corporations in their quest for profits overlooking the health and environmental consequences of their activities."

Donohoe says bovine growth hormones are not good for humans or cows. One problem is that it raises the level of a certain protein in the milk that can find its way into the human body.

"Thereby putting them at increased risk of breast, prostate, and [gastrointestinal] cancers."

The American Public Health Association has come out against the use of rBGH in beef and dairy cattle. The health group is also concern about the meat from cows injected with hormones. Worldwide, 27 countries have also banned its use, including Canada, Japan, and the European Union.

But Dale Bauman, who has been researching bovine growth hormone for decades at Cornell University, says many medical groups have looked, and found no human health issues.

"There's no way you could tell looking at the milk, and there's no way you could tell by testing the milk. There are no differences."

Bauman says the chemical composition of milk from cows injected with the hormones and those who weren't is exactly the same.

The American Cancer Society reviewed studies about the possible human health concerns with rBST and found the evidence inconclusive.

But it finds that the growth hormone can cause health problems in cows. Martin Donohoe with Physicians for Social Responsibility says rBST packages list 16 possible ways it can harm cows.

"Heat stress, hoof disorders, GI, birth disorders, ovarian and uterine problems, and mastitis, which is basically pus in the milk."

Donohoe says that last one – mastitis – is treated with antibiotics. He says those antibiotics ends up in the meat from cattle when its rendered into hamburger.

Back at the Stauffer farm, they're not seeing these problems. And their vet agrees.

Petra Meier has been inspecting their herd for five years. She also works at dairy farms that don't treat their cows with hormones. Meier says she doesn't see an increase in mastitis or other diseases.

"So I don't think there's any difference in cow health from a herd that's using BST or not."

Meier says when she goes the store she doesn't worry about whether the milk was produced with bovine growth hormones. She buys what's cheapest.

This story is part of a series on current issues and the future of dairy in the North Country. It first aired in April. To see more stories in this series, click here.

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