According to the official Chinese Daily newspaper, medical tests performed on babies in 2010 found levels of estrogens circulating in their bloodstreams that are as high as those found in most adult women. These babies were between four and 15 months old. The evidence is overwhelming that the milk formula they were fed was responsible.
Synutra, the company that made the baby formula consumed by these babies, said it wasn’t their fault. They insisted “no man-made hormones or any illegal substances were added during the production of the milk powder.”
Then what could be the source of the hormones? A Chinese dairy association said the hormones could have entered the food chain when farmers reared the cows. “Since a regulation forbidding the use of hormones to cultivate livestock has yet to be drawn up in China,” said Wang Dingmian, the former chairman of the dairy association in the southern province of Guangdo, “it would be lying to say nobody uses it.” Bovine growth hormones are used in China, as they are in the U.S., to promote greater milk production.
An extraordinary number of food products sold in the U.S. today come from China. Could tainted formula be making its way to the U.S.?
There is currently no way for consumers to know whether infant formula they might purchase has been made with milk products from China.
If this problem appears in the U.S., who will be held responsible? The retailers? The importers? The Chinese producers? Will anyone be called to account?
As I describe in my books The Food Revolution and Diet For a New America, and on my website, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In the 1980s, doctors in Puerto Rico began encountering cases of precocious puberty. There were four-year-old girls with fully developed breasts. There were three-year old girls with pubic hair and vaginal bleeding. There were one-year-old girls who had not yet begun to walk but whose breasts were growing. And it wasn’t just the females. Young boys were also affected. Many had to have surgery to deal with breasts that had become grossly swollen.
Writing a few years later in the Journal of the Puerto Rico Medical Association, Dr. Carmen A. Saenz explained the cause. “It was clearly observed in 97 percent of the cases that the appearance of abnormal breast tissue was…related to local whole milk in the infants.”
The problem was traced, and found to stem from the misuse of hormones in dairy cows. When Dr. Saenz was asked how she could be certain the babies and children were contaminated with hormones from milk rather than from some other source, she replied simply: “When we take our young patients off… fresh milk, their symptoms usually regress.”
Along with China, the U.S. is today one of the few countries in the world that still allow bovine growth hormones to be injected into dairy cows. Though banned in Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and most of Europe, the use of these hormones in U.S. dairy is not only legal, it’s routine.
The U.S. dairy industry assures us that this is not a problem. But there is a very real problem, and its name is Insulin-like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). Monsanto’s own studies, as well as those of Eli Lilly & Co., have found a 10-fold increase in IGF-1 levels in the milk of cows who have been injected with bovine growth hormone (BGH).
Why is that a problem? A report by the European Commission’s authoritative international 16-member scientific committee not only confirmed that excessive levels of IGF-1 are always found in the milk of cows injected with BGH. It also concluded that excess levels of IGF-1 pose serious risks of breast, colon and prostate cancer.
How serious is the increased risk? According to an article in the May 9, 1998 issue of the medical journal The Lancet, women with even a relatively small increase in blood levels of IGF-1 are up to seven times more likely to develop breast cancer than women with lower levels.
IGF-1 that is consumed by human beings in dairy products is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. It isn’t destroyed by human digestion. And pasteurization is no help. In fact, the pasteurization process actually increases IGF-1 levels in milk.
What’s a consumer to do?
If at all possible, breast-feed your babies, and support breast-feeding friendly workplaces and other environments. It’s hard to overstate the health advantages of breast-feeding for both mother and baby. They are enormous, and particularly so today, when the possibility exists that commercially available infant formula could be contaminated with excess hormones.
If you are going to buy dairy products, try to get them from organic sources. Organic milk products by law can’t be produced with bovine growth hormone (BGH). Or look for dairy products that specifically say they are produced without BGH (also called recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST). Starbucks only uses dairy products that have not been produced with the hormone. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream likewise uses only milk and cream from dairy farms that have pledged not to use BGH.
If you’re going to eat cheese, remember that American-made cheeses are likely to be contaminated with BGH and excess levels of IGF-1 unless they’re organic or labeled BGH-free. Most cheeses that are imported from Europe are safer, though, since much of Europe has banned the hormone.
Have you ever wondered why dairy products made from cows injected with the hormone aren’t labeled? It’s because Monsanto, the original manufacturer of BGH, has aggressively and successfully lobbied state governments in the past to make sure that no legislation is passed that would require such labeling. In 2012, Monsanto and its allies spent nearly $50 million to defeat California’s Proposition 37, which would have required the labeling of genetically engineered foods.
As if that isn’t enough, Monsanto has also insistently sought to make it illegal for dairy products that are BGH-free to say so on their labels, unless the labels also included wording exonerating BGH. How does Monsanto justify such a ban? They say that allowing retailers to tell consumers that a dairy product is BGH-free shouldn’t be allowed, even if it’s true, because it unfairly stigmatizes BGH.
My heart goes out to the babies in China and their families, to the children in Puerto Rico and their families, and to the millions of others who have been or will be adversely affected by the abuse of hormones in dairy production.
To learn how to steer clear of potentially dangerous foods and household products, and how to make healthier, safer, cost-saving choices, read The New Good Life: Living Better Than Ever in an Age of Less.