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April 27, 2009

Kudos to Kansas Governor Sebelius for Vetoing Controversial Milk Labeling Bill

The Humane Society of the United States

by Gowri Koneswaran

On Thursday, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius vetoed controversial state legislation that would have imposed restrictions on dairy product labels indicating that cows had not been pumped full of rBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone.

A coalition of small farmers and advocacy organizations, including The Humane Society of the United States, opposed the bill and sent a letter to Governor Sebelius, President Obama's nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The HSUS, consumer organizations, food safety advocates and factory farm opponents applauded Sebelius' veto.

The genetically engineered hormone rBGH (also referred to as rBST, or recombinant bovine somatotropin) is injected into cows to increase milk yield. Approximately one in six U.S. dairy cows are repeatedly injected with this growth hormone. The use of rBGH can have significant impacts on the animals' welfare, since unnaturally high milk yields are associated with poorer body condition and increased rates of mastitis, lameness and reproductive problems.

Industry Lobbied for Watered-Down Labeling

The bill at issue, HB 2121, would have required a disclaimer on dairy products labeled as coming "from cows not treated with rBGH," in the same font size and location, stating "The FDA [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] has determined that no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rBGH-supplemented and non-rBGH-supplemented cows."

Sebelius' Reasoning

"The milk labeling provisions negatively impact a dairy producer's ability to inform consumers that milk is from cows not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST)."

Evidence suggests, however, that some of the conclusions underlying this disclaimer are not accurate.

Milk from cows treated with rBGH shows statistically significant increases of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), which has been linked to breast, colorectal and prostate cancers. While a connection has not been established between consumption of milk from cows injected with rBGH and increased IGF-1 levels in humans, consumers have a right to know how the milk they may drink was produced.

Even the FDA has explicitly said a disclaimer like the one required by HB 2121 is not required. In a July 27, 1994, letter to the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets, the agency stated that "the bottom line is that a contextual statement is not required, that in many instances a statement like 'from cows not treated with rbST' would not be misleading, and in no instance is the specific statement 'No significant difference...' required by FDA."

Worsening Condition of Dairy Cows

Of greatest concern to animal advocates and many consumers are the impacts of rBGH use on animal welfare.

Scientific Concern

"BST is causing poor welfare which would not occur if it were not used."
—European Commission's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare

Colorado State University Professor of Animal Science Temple Grandin blames the indiscriminate use of rBGH and "genetic selection for increased milk production" as the two reasons for decline of body condition in dairy cows. Both the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) and the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW) have found that rBGH use increases the risks of both mastitis and lameness.

Both of these leading scientific bodies recommend against using rBST for welfare reasons.

The SCAHAW concludes, "BST is causing poor welfare which would not occur if it were not used. The conclusion which should be drawn is that avoidable actions which result in poor welfare, such as BST usage, should not be permitted."

In a press release about her decision, Governor Sebelius explained: "[T]he Bill before me...provides for changes in dairy labeling that could make it more difficult to provide consumers with clear information. The milk labeling provisions negatively impact a dairy producer's ability to inform consumers that milk is from cows not treated with recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBST)."

If her nomination is confirmed, Governor Sebelius will oversee the Department of Health and Human Services, whose agencies include the FDA.

The HSUS endorses her appointment, and commends Governor Sebelius for vetoing HB 2121 and supporting the interests of consumers, small farmers, and animals.

Gowri Koneswaran is Director of Animal Agricultural Impacts at Humane Society International.

 

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