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Serving Food with a Side of Growth Hormones

Serving Food with a Side of Growth Hormones

Consumer sentiment against the use of growth hormones in food animals has been gaining more attention in recent years. Parents fear that residual hormones in dairy and beef products are causing early puberty in children, especially little girls. Whether this claim is true or not, many diners are willing to pay higher prices to eat at restaurants that serve hormone-free beef and dairy products.

Growth hormones are proteins that stimulate growth. All animals, including humans, naturally produce growth hormones, mostly in early stages of development. Naturally occurring hormones can be replicated and injected into both humans and animals to cause faster growth. Currently, hormone injections are used by a large number of beef and dairy farmers to make more product with fewer animals.

Hormone-free chicken and pork labels
Currently there are no approved growth hormones for chicken and pork. So all chicken and pork products on the market are hormone-free. If these types of foods are advertised as hormone-free, it is a form of false advertisement most likely used to sell the meat at a higher price.
Hormones Used

Beef and dairy animals receive their hormones either through direct injection or from an implant placed under the skin.

In beef cows:
Currently, beef cows are the only meat-producing animals approved for hormone injection in the United States. There are five different hormones used, three natural and two synthetic; testosterone is the most well-known. The hormones are administered through an implant under the skin of the ear and deliver measured amounts throughout the animal's life. Implanted beef cows convert feed into muscle faster and more efficiently, leading to quicker maturity and leaner beef.

In dairy cows:
The only growth hormone approved for use in dairy cattle is called bovine somatotropin (bST) or recombant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). The hormone is administered through injection and simulates another naturally occurring hormone (IGF-1) which the cow uses to convert nutrients into milk. Simply put, cows given bST produce more milk than non-injected cows.


Identifying Foods

Absence labeling is the form of marketing used to identify products that do not contain growth hormones. Rather than mentioning what the food product contains, absence labeling tells consumers what the food does not contain. Many beef and dairy product labels now indicate “Hormone Free” or “Comes from cows not treated with artificial growth hormones.”

Source of the Controversy

Both sides of the growth hormone debate say there are residual levels of hormones in the food and milk. Those in favor of the hormones contend that these hormones are naturally occurring in humans and animals and therefore, cause no ill effects. And those opposed to growth hormones say they do cause harm to both humans and animals.

Arguments for Growth Hormones
  • Fewer cows are needed to produce milk. Since rBST is designed to increase a cow’s milk production, fewer cows are needed to produce more milk. This reduces the dairy industries impact on the environment.
  • Beef cows grow faster and leaner. Beef cows can grow 15 to 20% faster than non-treated animals.2 The meat produced is also leaner than conventionally grown animals.
  • Any residual hormones do not harm consumers. If any residual hormones are found in the meat or milk, they are either at too low of levels to cause any response in the human body, or in the case of bST they are dead hormone cells that simply pass through the digestive system.
  • Studies have time and again proven the safety of growth hormones. There are over 2,000 published studies on bST alone, undertaken by different scientists around the world.2 All have documented the quality and healthfulness of milk produced by injected cows.
Arguments Against Growth Hormones
  • It is unhealthy for the animal. The label used to package the hormone injected into dairy cattle lists nearly two dozen side effects that can pose risks to the animal. Among the list is mastitis, a painful bacterial infection in the cow’s udder.
  • Dairy cow growth hormones are linked to cancer in humans. The number of residual hormones found in cow milk is as much as 10 times higher than non-treated cows.3 Several studies have linked these high levels of residual hormones to an increased risk of breast, colon, prostate and lung cancer in humans.
  • Growth hormones can cause early maturity in humans. In the late 1970s, the U.S. banned a growth hormone (DES) known to cause cancer. Rather than destroying the leftovers, the manufacturer shipped remaining hormones to Puerto Rico where the farmers liberally injected their chicken, pork and beef herds. Shortly thereafter, thousands of children as young as two were found to have reached full sexual maturity. The cause was residual DES in meat the children had consumed.4
  • Milk from treated dairy cows may have residual antibiotics. Cows treated with bST have a higher rate of udder infections which the farmer treats with antibiotics. The antibiotics do show up in that cow’s milk, and if the farmer does not allow a sufficient withdrawal period, the entire milk supply could become contaminated. >> Learn More (Residual Antibiotics in Food)
What the Government Has to Say

Time and again, both the USDA and FDA have stated that meat and dairy products from  animals injected with growth hormones are not significantly different than products from non-injected animals. Additionally, in response to the negative affects bST has on dairy cows, the FDA states that these negative affects inflict animals that are not treated with the hormone.5 So there is no evidence to support that bST causes bacterial infections.

The Battle Rages On

Answering to consumer demand, several dairy producers are using absence labeling to indicate their product comes from cows not treated with bST. The hormone manufacturer has retaliated saying absence labeling is misleading since the USDA and FDA have both stated milk from treated cows is no different than milk from non-injected cows. The labeling debate has reached legislative panels in several states, like Ohio, where officials stated this form of labeling is viable, as long as the label includes the following FDA disclaimer: “no significant difference has been shown between milk derived from [the growth hormone] rbST-supplemented and non-rbST supplemented cows.6


1 Myrna Goldstein and Mark A. Goldstein, M.D., Controversies in Food and Nutrition (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002) 67.
2 Ibid., 71.
3 Jeffery M. Smith, Genetic Roulette: The Documented Health Risks of Genetically Engineered Foods (Fairfield, IA: Yes Books, 2007) 157.
4 Pete Hardin, “rbGH & Human Safety,” The Milkweed (September 2007): C http://www.themilkweed.com/Feature_07_Sep.pdf (accessed October 5, 2008).
5 U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “BST Update,” http://www.fda.gov/cvm/CVM_Updates/bstup32196.html (accessed October 5, 2008).
6 Shane Starling. “Resistance to Ohio milk labeling restrictions grows.” Food Navigator USA. http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Legislation/Resistance-to-Ohio-milk-labeling-restrictions-grows (accessed October 5, 2008).