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”.