Insights by Goldie: Tillamook bans rBGH

by Goldie Caughlan

This article was originally published in April 2005

The board of the Tillamook Creamery Association on the Oregon Coast (provider of the longtime Northwest favorite, Tillamook cheese) recently voted unanimously to stop accepting milk from any of its 147 member dairy farmers that use the controversial synthetic growth hormone, rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone) also referred to as rBST (recombinant bovine somatotropin).

The trade name patented by Monsanto is the much friendlier sounding Posilac™ pronounced with a long “o” — as in posey. Indeed, if all you knew about it was from the Posilac Web site maintained by Monsanto (, it would make your heart go pitter-pat with joy and delight, and you’d want to run right out and get some yummy posey milk!

But numerous consumer groups, health organizations, private physicians, nutritionists and scientists from around the world have actively opposed the safety studies, the economic consequences and the unknowns of the rBGH hormone, from before its approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until the present time. One of Posilac’s chief critics and one of the most knowledgeable from firsthand research, is a well-known, longtime scientist who has written extensively on many subjects of consequence, Dr. Samuel Epstein, M.D. His book, “Got (Genetically Engineered) Milk? The Monsanto rBGH/BST Milk Wars Handbook” was published in September 2001.

Mincing no words, Dr. Epstein presents a very strong case that rBGH makes cows sick. It shortens their life. It causes them pain and suffering. He points out that Monsanto has been forced to admit to about 20 veterinary health risks on its Posilac label, especially mastitis and udder inflammation.

Human health concerns
As to the human health concerns, Dr. Epstein states that rBGH milk is contaminated by pus from mastitis caused by continued use of rBGH, as well as antibiotics used to treat the mastitis, and remnants of the genetically engineered hormone itself. The rBGH has been shown to be capable of being absorbed through the human gut and can induce a variety of immunological effects.

He says rBGH milk is chemically and nutritionally very different from natural milk, which is totally opposite to Monsanto’s claims and FDA’s assertions. This includes the fact that the use of the rBGH causes milk to contain very high levels of a natural growth factor, called IGF-1. Excess levels of IGF-1 have been incriminated as major causes of breast, colon and prostate cancers, among other concerns.

Dr. Epstein also states, unequivocally, that rBGH-managed factory-style dairy farms are not sustainable and that the hormone’s use poses a major threat to the viability of small dairy farms — quite opposite to Monsanto’s marketing claims. Thus, rBGH enriches Monsanto while posing risks to consumers and dairy farmers.

Battle lines drawn
While Tillamook’s board was unanimous in its vote to ban use of the hormone, dairy farmers were divided. So much so that some organized a resistance movement and brought the issue to the full membership for a vote. Monsanto scrambled into action, sending out the troops from corporate headquarters to further stir things up in the dairy community. Nevertheless, when the farmers assembled and voted, there were insufficient votes to overturn the board’s original decision. The result is that by April 1, 2005, all farmers who supply the Tillamook Creamery must sign affidavits self-certifying that they do not use the genetically engineered growth hormone in any of their dairy cows.

Banning the hormone at Tillamook is cheered as a real victory — and I agree that it demonstrates the power of organizing a consumer base and taking action. Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Campaign to Label, the Organic Consumers Association and others spearheaded a national letter-writing campaign. Tillamook was deluged with more than 6,500 emails, faxes and letters — 98 percent of them demanding that it ban use of rBGH by suppliers.

Tillamook denies these efforts had anything to do with its decision, but gives no statement on why it acted to stop the hormone’s use. Tillamook has stonewalled all consumer and retailer efforts to find out any information about its practices for many years. It admitted nothing directly, but always quoted the FDA that milk produced with rBGH is no different than other milk, essentially throwing a wall up against engaging with consumers. That’s always a fatal mistake for manufacturers, in my opinion, and sooner or later not effective.

Yet even now, the company indicates it will make no statements or announcements, nor provide any informational notices to consumers saying it has banned the hormone. Tillamook states only that “if people ask” it will tell them it no longer accepts milk from suppliers that use rBGH. Sort of a new version of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” except that it’s now “don’t tell anyone — unless they ask” (and tell them as little as possible).

It also has been reported that Tillamook has made no indications that it will keep the hormone out of other ingredients the creamery uses, including powdered milk, butter, yogurt, sour cream and cream.

Dairies struggling
Very interesting to me is that 43 of the 147 farmers that supply Tillamook voted against the hormone ban. That’s 29 percent of Tillamook’s suppliers. There may have been more, but only 83 farmers actually showed up to vote, so it’s not clear. I think it’s worth considering the conditions and concerns that might have motivated the position and actions of these farmers to use the hormone in the first place — and resist its removal.

Since Posilac was introduced in 1994, Monsanto has been hyper-aggressive in its marketing strategies. It has targeted not just large, industrial-style dairy conglomerates, but also medium-sized dairy operations, wooing them with the siren song of increasing milk production up to 20 percent, with fewer cows to manage.

Family dairies for decades have been among the highest on the list of endangered farmer species, with hundreds being forced out of business every year, unable to compete with feed costs, taxes, low milk prices and the piranha-style business practices of the mega-dairies. Those operations have consolidated their huge confinement dairies into just a few industrial-style “hub” areas, providing little or no pasture for the animals and moving feed in and product out by rail or truck, back and forth, halfway across the country.

As family dairies have struggled to stay afloat, it’s no wonder then, as a drowning person grabs at any object to survive, many a dairy farmer grasped the Monsanto hormone as a presumed lifeline for their farms. Obviously it worked for some, in the paradigm of industrialized dairies that includes “pooling” milk and contracting to large buyers. Those farmers are resisting loss of the “lifeline” that they see the hormone providing them. That’s sad.

In 2003, while attending a farm conference in Pullman, I enjoyed some ice cream at Washington State University’s on-campus creamery, watched the making of the popular Cougar Gold cheese, and tasted several varieties. I then joined a tour of WSU’s dairy research operations and asked, “Do you ever use rBGH in any of your cows?”

I was totally unprepared to hear the response, which was that about three years prior, the dairy research had gone exclusively to using the growth hormone in all the animals. When I pursued it, asking why, I was told, “the herd has to make money and we were told to use the hormone because we have to make the most we can.” That’s the source of milk for WSU’s Cougar Gold cheese and ice cream.

I leave it to you, the reader — some of whom may be very fond of Cougar Gold cheese (which tastes good) — to decide what your individual or combined consumer efforts might be in pressuring WSU to make changes. Personally, I’m still shocked how short-sighted WSU is in this matter.

By the way, Darigold, by all reports, still accepts rBGH-laced milk. PCC discontinued Darigold years ago when the rBGH issue arose.

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