Crying Over Unnatural Milk

For nearly a decade, biotechnology companies and consumer activists have waged a pitched battle over the future of the genetically engineered cow-growth hormone, bovine somatotropin (BST). On Nov. 5, the Food & Drug Administration finally approved Monsanto Co.'s controversial drug, clearing it for use once a 90-day congressional moratorium expires. FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler, citing voluminous research and the results of two separate hearings on the drug's safety, said there is no reason to bar widespread use of BST, which boosts milk production in cows. "The public can be confident that milk and meat from BST-treated cows is safe to consume," Kessler declared.

Case closed, right?

Hardly. The real battle--the fight for the pocketbooks of American consumers--is just beginning. Farmers, dairy cooperatives, food processors, and supermarkets aren't sure how the marketplace will react to the use of BST. Their fear: a consumer backlash that might torpedo the drug and dampen sales of dairy products. "When BST goes on sale, we will see a decline in [milk] consumption, maybe in the double digits," frets a spokesman for the California Milk Advisory Board. "We think it's a great day for science, but it's lousy for marketing."

ALARMING SURVEY. Many farmers, however, aren't likely to let such concerns deter them from using BST. Field tests have shown that cows treated with the hormone, which is almost identical to the natural hormone that stimulates milk generation, are up to 15% more productive. BST, morever, is relatively cheap to use. "It's a good management tool," says farmer Ken Nobis, who participated in a BST test program at his 1,000-head dairy operation in central Michigan. "We can use it to make money."

What frightens many farmers and companies, however, is the possibility that large numbers of consumers will reject the drug. In a recent University of California survey of that state's dairy farmers, 56% said they would not use BST, up from just 29% in 1987. Many dairy cooperatives have announced plans to declare themselves "BST free," while others say they may isolate milk from BST-treated cows and use it only for processed products. Some food companies, including Gerber Products Co. and ice cream maker Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., vow not to buy milk from BST-treated cows.

Anti-BST activists hope to build momentum before the Feb. 3 rollout date for the drug's use in dairy farming. Jeremy Rifkin, the biotech opponent who unsuccessfully campaigned to stop the FDA from approving BST, claims 19,000 volunteers in 900 cities will participate in demonstrations at grocery stores and will boycott products from cows injected with BST. The antis may have some effect, too: The city of Chicago recently passed an ordinance requiring labeling on biotechnology-enhanced food products, and other cities are considering similar rules.

Although the FDA found no evidence of problems with the drug, Rifkin continues to insist it could be dangerous. BST-treated cows often suffer from an inflammation of the udder called mastitis, which is treated with antibiotics. That leads to higher levels of antibiotic residue in their milk, Rifkin says, which is potentially unhealthy.

WAR OF WORDS. Concerns about BST may not fade. Even Monsanto admits that BST-treated cows are prone to mastitis, though it says the condition can be managed with improved milking procedures, as well as antibiotics. Others are worried that beleaguered family farmers could be driven out of business if new production lowers milk prices. U.S. farmers regularly run up a milk surplus now. A big uptick in milk supplies could drive down prices dramatically, straining a federal price-support program that already costs taxpayers about $300 million a year. "We're worried about the potential effect on small-scale agriculture and on the health of cows," says Alan F. Parker, a Ben & Jerry's Homemade manager.

Monsanto is trying hard to counter arguments against the drug. It is sending informational packets to thousands of dairy farmers, as well as meeting with them. It also has lined up 250 doctors and other health experts nationwide to answer consumer questions about health issues, and it plans to provide educational brochures to retailers. "We want everyone to know that this is the same safe, wholesome milk that they've always gotten," says Walter P. Hobgood, vice-president of Monsanto's animal-sciences division. But that may be just what consumers demand: the same old milk, minus the biotech BST.

David Greising in Chicago, with John Carey in Washington and Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles