Friday, October 3, 2014

    We’ve all heard it. The dairy industry is corrupt. The milk that we buy is full of antibiotics and growth hormones. I mean that’s what the media says, so it must be true, right? Adolescent girls are hitting puberty earlier, cows are living in squalid conditions and forced to produce massive amounts of milk and let’s not forget cancer! Obviously milk is not a safe bet and dairy farmers are devious manipulators, cloaked in plaid shirts and overalls, with a scheme to fill the public with toxins and make money doing it.
     Forgive me while I get on my soap box. As a dairy industry professional, my skin crawls when I hear statements like this. The media has slandered the dairy industry for the use of growth hormones in cows to increase milk production and antibiotics to treat mastitis based on lots of speculation and very little fact. The public has then taken this and amplified it ten-fold. The result is a widespread fear and shunning of milk consumption, which hurts both the livelihood of dairy farmers and the diet of consumers as milk is replaced by less nutritionally valuable foods. But let’s review some of the common myths surrounding what’s in our milk and separate fiction from fact.

1.      BST. Otherwise known as Bovine Somatotropin or rBST, which is recombinant Bovine Somatotropin. BST is a protein hormone that is produced by the pituitary gland of every cow and helps regulate metabolic processes. rBST is a synthetic version of this hormone, manufactured by Monsanto Company, which was FDA approved in the early 90’s for use in dairy cattle to increase milk production. So yes, there was a period of time where the use of rBST in cows really took off. Although BST is a hormone already naturally produced by the cow, it could be said that farmers were giving their cows’ growth hormone. However, this period has passed. Due to the unfavorable response from consumers, the popularity of rBST has decreased dramatically and most milk processing plants have banned its use, even though it is still FDA legal. Seven of the ten largest milk plants in the U.S. do not allow the use of rBST in their milk. So the question still remains….is there BST in the milk? Yes. Cows are still naturally producing it, just as they always have, which means some ends up in the milk. No testing has ever shown that the use of rBST caused residues to appear in the milk or that it has any effect on humans.

2.      Antibiotics. You may have heard the word “mastitis”. What is mastitis? It simply means an infection in the mammary gland. Cows get mastitis. Guess what? Humans do too!! A lactating gland is very susceptible to being infiltrated with bacteria, especially if any type of milking device is being used, whether it’s a milking machine or a breast pump. Humans get infections all the time (respiratory, sinus, wounds, etc.) and we take antibiotics for them. We give antibiotics to our pets when they have an infection. So why is it suddenly malicious to give them to cows when they have an infection? The FDA has very strict regulations on the use of antibiotics in food animals. Any dairy cow that is receiving antibiotic therapy for mastitis is removed from the milking herd and placed in the “hospital” pen, which is essentially a quarantine pen for sick animals. The milk from those cows does not go in the bulk tank, does not get picked up for processing and is usually discarded. EVERY single time the milk truck picks up a tank of milk, a sample is pulled and tested for antibiotic residue. The test is rapid and the result is known usually before the truck is even unloaded. So the take-home message of all this is…no, there are not any antibiotics in your milk.

3.      Organic dairies. People that buy organic milk are envisioning pastoral green fields, with spotless pet-like Holsteins grazing serenely and not so much as a tube of medicine in sight. Well, part of being a certified organic dairy IS that the cows must be allowed some access to pasture, but that may also be a desert field of sage brush. Also, it is true that organic farmers are not allowed to use ANY type of antibiotic on their cows, even if it will be life-saving. The untold story is what gets used instead. Mastitis is just as common on an organic dairy, as on a conventional dairy and in the absence of options, some farmers resort to infusing strange combinations of vinegar, oil, alcohol, detergents or other household compounds into the udder, in hopes that it will “cure” the mastitis. It doesn’t and in some cases can result in extreme pain and toxicity to the animal and even be fatal.

So my take-home message is this: don’t believe everything you see on TV or read on the internet! Food animal production is hard work and like every type of business, it has its good apples and bad eggs. But instead of simply taking things at face value, do your homework. Look closer into statements being spread before perpetuating the cycle. And know that the quality and safety of milk and dairy products in the U.S. is some of the best on the planet. Every farmer I have ever worked with truly does enjoy their lifestyle and does their best to take care of their “girls”.



  1. You’ve made some really good points in your post!
    I’ve got to jump on my soapbox too. The veterinary profession side of antibiotic use is under fire all too frequently without any consideration as to the human counterpart of the argument. For example, antibiotic use to treat mastitis in cattle. So what happens when a woman get’s mastitis? She’s put in the hospital and given antibiotic. This happened to my sister after the birth of my niece. So what did the doctors recommend? They recommended bringing my niece into the hospital (she wasn’t there because she wasn’t sick) and breastfeeding during this process. Yep, the same classes of antibiotics used in dairy cattle to treat mastitis that cause the tainted milk to be dumped and deemed inappropriate for human consumption are being used in humans for the same conditions, and human physicians see the continued breastfeeding is more important than the potential negative consequences of antibiotic transfer to the infant.
    Hormone use is another great topic of discussion. Most people are upset that rBST is used because it is a tangible gain to producers that maybe just maybe might someday cause an indirect, convoluted biochemical reaction in their body that could change their life (unlike oxygen use and free radical formation that occurs in our cells everyday, right?). But what happens if we convert these tangible benefits into intangible benefits. We can easily replace high milk yield with cuddling, wagging tails, fetching the newspaper and purring. The intangible benefits that we receive from our pets is becoming well researched and scientifically documented. So what happens when years of over-loving through free choice feed, table scraps and lack of exercise leads to a diagnosis of diabetes? Well naturally, we need to put that pet on insulin therapy. So why is insulin okay on our refrigerator shelf, but that rBST tainted milk is the devil? The intangible benefits we gain from having happy healthy pets outweighs the potential side effects of the extremely well documented safety of exposure to recombinant or porcine derived insulin. When proposed with the lifestyle changes that could easily control the disease for a significant portion of these diabetic cases, most owners either outright reject the idea or miserably fail to follow instructions. A lot of diabetic cases could be controlled with increased routine exercise, dietary restriction and education in the medical condition (which most veterinarians would gladly discuss with you). But that daily double dose of insulin is so much easier to incorporate into our lifestyle than 20 minutes jogging around the block a few times or increasing the fiber in our dog’s diet and tough loving that diet change out. So if you can’t even take 20 minutes out of your life to hormonally-free change your pet’s life, why do you demand a farmer to change his livelihood to indulge your guilt free lifestyle?
    Bottom line, an organic or all natural lifestyle isn’t something you can buy on the shelf at the grocery store. When you sniffle and run to the doctor’s office demanding a Z Pak to get through that mild sinusitis, imagine what you’re denying an animal in an organic production system. You can’t be organic by eating antibiotic free, free range chicken eggs for your omelet breakfast then apply your tetracycline infused zit cream in the evening for that perfect complexion. And the next time you turn down that cut of beef because of the enormous carbon footprint that cattle have in the conventional production system, look up how much carbon is required to cut down forest land across the globe and transport your year round supply of organic vegetables that you’ve calculated provide the entirety of your protein, micro and macro-nutrient needs. See how many animals lose their habitats due to increased crop land in unregulated regions of the world, and how much road kill is created during the shipment. That guilt free lifestyle you’ve chosen won’t be guilt free for long.
    End of soapbox.

  2. I really love this blog post! Obviously someone who is very knowledgeable in the dairy industry has done their homework and it is refreshing to hear some of the biggest rumors in the dairy world dispelled. It is truly unfortunate that dairy farmers are under so much fire for practices that are either no longer used, or heavily regulated and not a problem.
    One of the things that bothers me the very most about the criticism of dairies is the claim that the hormones in milk are causing young girls to hit puberty earlier. The media has eaten this up and blown it out of proportion. Who’s to say that young girls aren’t hitting puberty earlier for other reasons? Especially since rBST is not used much anymore? Since the hormone has not been used lately, has anyone seen a decrease in girls starting puberty earlier? My personal feeling is that puberty occurring earlier is related to weight. Young girls are getting heavier on average and starting puberty earlier could be related to that.
    I think that rather than point fingers at some of the hardest working people in this country and let the media scare the public, we should be addressing our own personal habits and doing our best to be healthy. I would hope that people have more respect for the dairy farmer and his beloved milk cows than the media likes to portray. Do your homework and before you start listening to the media, make sure you have all the facts. A farmer’s life might depend on it.

  3. I like the soapboxes here! I had never really had to consider before that the organic labeling antibiotic free meant for the animals when they did get sick. I looked into it a little bit, and while it is generally accepted that dairies have very low use of antibiotics, there are big problems in large ag meat production farms with the use of low dose, daily antibiotics. I think this is the case of having one problem applied to an entire industry as a whole, although it does not seem like the dairy industry deserved to be pulled into this debate. There is a good extension education paper about the antibiotics that are used in different meat production here:
    With the rise of antibiotic resistance, and with much of antibiotic use being in animals, it is something to be aware of. But being able to calm consumers by letting them know that Dairy milk isn't a part of this problem, and that antibiotics are used to treat disease, helping animals be more comfortable and healthy, is really important. The growing antibiotic resistance poses a threat to animals as well as humans, so the problem really affect everyone here. It is completely argument that doctors are over prescribing antibiotics, and a big problem. But daily dosing of antibiotics in meat production is a issue too. It is one being currently tackled by the FDA to some extent at least - they have found that antibiotic use in farms are rising: and are taking steps to reduce them:
    Also I definitely think that people are pointing fingers at the wrong culprit for early puberty. While hormones in milk [As in, your mothers milk] has effects on growth during early infancy [,] it just seems like there are way too many variables to take into account. There are even some really cool sociology papers taking into absent fathers, BMI, economic status, and race in early puberty.

    Jocelyn Cuthbert

  4. I was working in a dairy farm for 3 years and during that time I used to get weird questions and comments from people and friends about milk and cows. One day one was arguing for an hour that the milk we get in the store is mostly powdered milk. He said it is impossible to produce that huge amount of milk for the market. I told him first if it was made from a powdered milk, it will be indicated in the label. Second, we milk cows 3 times everyday even if there is no demand and there was so many days we had to just to throw it away since we need to empty the tanks to fill them with the new milk. I got also a lot of questions about using hormones and antibiotics and the residue in milk. Where I used to work, there was very strict quality standard and sometimes a whole tank get refused because of some antibiotics being detected.

  5. I like the soapbox here too, and I also like the stories from the dairy industrial. From the stories, we know better about dairy industrial. I like dairy products and I can't agree more that the dairymen are working hard to provide health nutrition to the public. The pressure from the media or the misunderstanding from the public is killing this business. However, I believe more and more people get educated from the scientists, they will understand more about the diary science and will love the diary products and stick with it. What we need to do is keeping spreading the truth of the dairy science. You did a good job on the blog, please keep doing it and more and more people will be on your side.

  6. What I find most interesting about the use of rBST and the dairy industry is that on every container of milk, you find the statement that the FDA has not found a difference in milk from rBST treated cows and non-rBST treated cows. Still though, people will purposely select milk that is rBST free. I think that the biggest reason for this is a lack of understanding of what rBST is and why it is given to cows. I feel that people have the idea that rBST drives milk production so high that the cow suffers as a result. However, rBST is utilized to minimize the decrease of milk production over the lactating period of the cow, rather than having the cow produce massive amounts of milk she would never be capable of without the rBST.