June 30, 1999
Consumer Policy Institute
U.S. and Europe Agree to Disagree on Safety of Dairy Hormone
YONKERS, NY, June 30, 1999: Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, praised a decision today by the U.N.’s main food safety body, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, not to endorse the safety of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rbGH), a genetically-engineered hormone produced by Monsanto that is designed to increase dairy cows’ milk output.
Codex officially agreed to shelve any further discussion of a U.S.-backed proposal to set a Maximum Residue Level for rbGH–known as bovine somatropin (BST) in Europe–in milk in light of vigorous opposition from other nations that still question the hormone’s safety. By indefinitely shelving the proposal, Codex acknowledged the deep division between countries such as the U.S., that insist rbGH is safe and countries like those of the European Union, where rbGH has not been approved due to nagging safety concerns.
“By refusing to set a standard today, Codex has recognized that there is no consensus on rbGH safety in the international scientific community, and that national governments should be able to decide whether rbGH should be permitted in their milk supply,” said Jean Halloran, Director of the Consumer Policy Institute at Consumers Union.
The U.S. has pushed Codex to adopt a standard to ensure the continued export of its dairy products from cows treated with the rbGH drug. However, U.S.-driven efforts to persuade the international community that rbGH is safe have been blocked twice before at Codex, in 1995 and again in 1997, primarily by opposition from European governments.
Today’s action by Codex leaves the door open for countries to exclude dairy imports treated with the hormone. While rbGH is not yet the subject of a trade dispute like the one currently pending on hormones used on beef cattle, it could erupt as a future trade issue.
In countries where rbGH is legal, including the U.S., Mexico, and South Africa, the hormone is injected into dairy cows to raise milk production. In the U.S., where rbGH use has been approved since 1993, the government has repeatedly argued that the hormone’s use poses no significant risks to public health, and that its risks to the health of dairy cattle are “manageable.”
However the controversial hormone has been banned in Canada and its use is subject to a moratorium the European Union. The EU has already issued two detailed scientific reports raising questions about human and animal health issues that arise when the hormone is used, and will decide at the end of 1999 whether to continue its current moratorium. Canada banned the hormone in January on grounds of its effects on the health of dairy cows, because cows treated with rbGH are more likely to contract udder infections which are treated with antibiotics.
Consumers Union advocates labeling dairy products from rbGH-treated cows. Today at the Codex meeting, the U.S. acknowledged that consumers in many countries oppose rbGH use because of possible public health impacts, animal welfare concerns, or both. The U.S. has argued in written comments to Codex that milk and dairy products can be labeled at the national level to address these consumer concerns.
“We are gratified that the international food safety process has held out for a higher degree of consumer protection than the U.S. thinks is necessary,” said CU’s Jean Halloran. She added, “Consumers around the world should thank the Codex Commission for its common sense. And Consumers in the U.S. will most likely want to start a dialogue with our government to explore labeling as one way to address consumer concerns about rbGH.”
Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, is an independent, nonprofit testing and information-gathering organization, serving only the consumer. We are a comprehensive source of unbiased advice about products and services, personal finance, health, nutrition, and other consumer concerns. Since 1936, our mission has been to test products, inform the public, and protect consumers.