Saturday, January 20, 2007

Having a cow over rBGH

Keep this to yourself, but disagreements erupt fairly frequently within the editorial staff of Nation’s Restaurant News, just as they do in any other newspaper. But the one that simmered at a low level for several days last week should be of four-alarm interest to any restaurateur who uses a dairy product or sells a hamburger. It’s a preview of an issue that could become a hot one for the trade, in part because it’s the first to be fanned by that powerful new instigator of public outrage, the blogosphere.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m compelled to note that I was one of the disputers. I’m not going to identify the colleague who took the other side. All you need to know is that we both have more than 20 years of experience in covering the business, and hold comparable positions within the organization. And that he was right, though both you and your potential adversaries—a formidable lot, to be sure—would probably both line up behind me. That’s precisely the problem.

The flashpoint was a news short I wrote up for about a change underway at Starbucks. The coffee giant divulged that it’s switching exclusively to milk and dairy products that contain no recombinant bovine growth hormone, a controversial genetically engineered substance known as rBGH. Or as a spokesman told the Reuters news service, "We are actively engaged with all our dairy suppliers to explore converting our core dairy products to be rBGH-free in our U.S. company-owned stores.” That’s how the home office put it—a switch to rBGH-free milk, half-and-half and whipped cream.

That might be what they said, my colleague observed after he saw the item, but it makes no sense. rBGH is a compound that’s injected into cows to boost their milk output. There’s more milk coming out of a treated cow, but the fluid itself is as rBGH-free as the output of a non-injected animal, as the Food & Drug Administration and the scientific community has concluded. Indeed, dairies that market their milk as coming from untreated cows have to alert consumers that the milk is no different from what a rBGH-injected cow produces.

What Starbucks really means, my co-worker continued, is that it’ll switch to dairy products made with milk from cows that weren’t given the hormone. Authorities say the use of rBGH increases an animal’s chances of an udder infection, called mastitis, which is then treated with antibiotics. Watchdogs have contended that the antibiotics and pus from the infections can get into the milk from those cattle.

My position was, and remains, that my story had to recount what Starbucks said, not how it should have articulated the point. But my friend is correct. The trouble is, Starbucks apparently didn’t appreciate what he did. Nor do the bloggers and internet-focused advocacy groups who drove the chain to make its pledge to go rBGH-free.

A group called the Cancer Prevention Coalition has this posted on its website, as I discovered by Googling rBGH: “rBGH milk differs from natural milk chemically, nutritionally, pharmacologically and immunologically.”

The Ethicurean was one of the bloggers who urged consumers to participate in a virtual protest by calling Starbucks en masse on Dec. 5 to “let them know that you want your milk rBGH-free.” In other words, to pursue a fallacy.

Food & Water Watch also implored the public to participate in Starbucks National Call-In Day. “In fact, any day is a good day to tell Starbucks to switch to rBGH-free milk,” the advocacy group says on its website,

Clearly, the facts are getting lost. And it’s not just a matter of semantics. By suggesting there’s a genetically engineered growth hormone in the milk your child might be drinking, the advocates are conjuring up a danger that doesn’t exist.

One other thing the restaurant industry should consider: Right now the focus is on milk. But advocates assert that rBGH taints the flesh of injected cows as well, even though authorities have dismissed that contention as groundless. And 40 percent of the cattle whose meat is ground into hamburger are old dairy cows, as one of the anti-rBGH sites notes.

No comments:

Post a Comment