Recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), is a synthetic growth hormone that has been commercially available for 20 years. This seemingly promising drug was developed by agricultural biotech company Monsanto to boost milk production by up to 30 percent. Unfortunately, what seemed like a dream come true for farmers had unwanted side effects in humans and dairy cows alike.

Dairy cows injected with rBGH have a significant increase in health problems, including udder infections (commonly treated with antibiotics), a greater risk of lameness and serious animal reproductive problems. Some studies have linked rBGH use to a variety of human health effects, such as tumor development, and prostate, breast, colon and other cancers.

The good news is that rBGH has not become extremely widely used. Ben & Jerry’s responded with a highly visible campaign against the growth hormone, starting in 1989 (four years before it was available on the market).

“Ben & Jerry’s launched their rBGH-free label on the same day that Monsanto made rBGH commercially available, and they basically hijacked the story,” says Brad Edmondson, author of Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s. “They gave reporters a quick and easy way to summarize the anti-rBGH discussion. They stuck to that and were very vocal about it, and the coverage was not what Monsanto hoped it would be.”

Now 20 years later, rBGH is still legal in the United States, but not in Japan, Canada or the European Union, and there is strong consumer demand for rBGH-free products.

“For close to a decade, U.S. consumers have said they don’t want growth hormones like rBGH in their milk, as evidenced by the tremendous sales growth of organic milk, which forbids the use of rBGH,” says Janice Neitzel, principal of Sustainable Solutions Group and a responsible animal protein consultant.

Although many dairy products are not labeled rBGH-free, some are. Monsanto contested having such food labels, stating that they are misleading and imply that milk from treated cows is inferior, so rBGH-free labels typically use the FDA-approved disclaimer stating “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-supplemented and non-rbST-supplemented cows.”

In addition to organic dairy products, some other companies have taken a pledge to source rBGH-free milk for their products, including Dannon, Breyers and, of course, Ben and Jerry’s (despite being bought out by Unilever).

Is just a pledge from dairy farms not to use rBGH sufficient? “The increasing traceability demands of consumers mean that affidavits declaring ‘no rBGH use’ are no longer enough,” says Neitzel. “Random blood tests of lactating cows are required to ensure there is no rBGH.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.