By Donella Meadows
–April 23, 1998–
Well here’s a howdy-do. TV station in Florida prepares hard-hitting series questioning safety of grocery-store milk. Large biotech company threatens station with libel suit. Station cancels broadcast, orders reporters to rewrite series. Reporters refuse. Station fires reporters. Reporters sue station.
It’s easy to post one of two well-worn headlines over this story — CORPORATION AND MEDIA CONSPIRE TO HIDE TAINTED MILK FROM PUBLIC or PIT-BULL REPORTERS DISTORT EVIDENCE TO PANIC CONSUMERS. Having talked with the protagonists on both sides, I’m unwilling to jump to either conclusion. I’m reminded of a Jane Austin novel where the plot thickens and no character is flawless — but the language being used lacks Jane Austin’s gentility.
“Some of the points clearly contain elements of defamatory statements which, if repeated in a broadcast, could lead to serious damage to Monsanto and dire consequences for Fox News.”
“We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is.”
Monsanto has put years and millions into a hormone, which, when injected every two weeks into a cow can raise her milk production by 10-20 percent. Posilac is the trade name; it is also called rBGH (for bovine growth hormone) and rBST (for bovine somatotropin, a name Monsanto made up, critics say, to avoid negative associations with hormones). The “r” stands for “recombinant,” because the hormone is produced in vats by bacteria into which a cow gene has been transplanted. The genetic engineering is in the bacteria, not the cows, not the milk.
All along the company has met with resistance to this product. Some people hate the very idea of tinkering with genes. Some are worried about artificially cranking up the metabolism of the cow. (The program quotes a taunt used by critics, “crack for cows,” but that is not a good metaphor; rBGH is more like the steroids that Olympic athletes are not allowed to use.) Some say the last thing the glutted U.S. market needs is more milk — this product does nothing for the consumer, it just helps some farmers beat out other farmers in a cutthroat competition. But the hot-button concern from a marketing point of view is the fear that milk from hormone-injected cows may be harmful to human health.
The squashed series, made by reporters Steve Wilson and Jane Akre for Fox-owned WTVT in Tampa, hits that concern hard. It does quote a Monsanto spokesman who cites the long approval process Posilac had to go through and the assurance of regulators that rBGH-produced milk is indistinguishable from any other. But it quotes rBGH skeptics harder and longer, and, as is typical in TV reporting, one has no idea whether they are representative scientists or a few selected cranks.
Wilson and Akre do document unsettling facts about corporate heavy-handedness, suppressed data, even an attempted bribe of regulatory officials in Canada. (Monsanto claims it was an offer of “research support;” a Canadian official on camera calls it a bribe.) The company does speak in weasel words. (“Every scientific, medical or regulatory body in the world which has reviewed and approved this product has come to the same conclusion: milk from rBST treated cows poses no risk to human health.” No mention of the fact that regulatory bodies in Canada, New Zealand, and the European Union, have reviewed and not approved the product.)
The series shows clearly that Florida supermarkets claiming to have rBGH-free milk have taken no steps to assure that result. Monsanto says the claim would be impossible to test, because there is no difference in the milk. But Monsanto’s own numbers show elevated hormone levels in rBGH-treated milk, and when I ask about the statistics, I get surprisingly devious answers. I have to conclude that this company has invested so much into its product that it can’t see or tell the full truth, even if it wants to.
On the other hand, the reporters, though they’ve done a lot of research and exposed significant corporate sloppiness, make rBGH-treated milk sound much too ominous. They harp on a possible link with cancer, for instance, which is a long way from proved (or disproved). The WTVT lawyers, scared by a threatening letter from Monsanto’s lawyers, went too far in the other direction, however, when they ordered the word “cancer” cut out throughout the series and replaced with “adverse human health effects.”
What deeply disturbs me about this story has nothing to do with milk. It has to do with consumers getting straight information. A series on rBGH could have been properly cautionary, but this one was overdramatic, designed to pull in viewers during “sweeps week.” On the other hand, it is chilling to know how easily a big company can squelch information. Just two tough-sounding letters and the show is canceled.
It would be nice to live in a world where we could trust the assurances of large corporations, trust public regulators, trust what we see on TV — but such a world seems increasingly remote. As to trusting the milk supply, I don’t think rBGH-treated milk will give us cancer, though I don’t know for sure, nor does Monsanto, nor do those hotshot TV producers. Personally I don’t want to find out by participating in an experiment conducted upon a poorly informed public, nor am I interested in revving up cows or hooking farmers on an unnecessary product. Fortunately I do trust a local dairy that does not use rBGH.
(Details on this story, including the TV script before and after editing, can be found at www.foxbghsuit.com. Monsanto’s website on Posilac is at www.monsanto.com/protiva/.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1998