rBST FREE! – This is a new label you may see on many dairy products these days. As a dairy farmer, I’ll admit I didn’t know much about what rBST was, so I decided to educate myself on the topic through conversations with other dairy farmers and processing plants. Then, I wanted to find out if other members of my family knew what the label meant. I decided to quiz my 22-year-old brother on what the rBST label on our cottage cheese container meant and I was surprised when he had to Google the answer for himself! It’s a scary thought when my very own farming brother doesn’t understand the meaning of some of the labels on our food these days.

For starters, just what is rBST ?

Female dairy cattle naturally produce a hormone called bovine somatotropin that regulates milk production and feed intake. Through genetic engineering, scientists have been able to create an artificial growth hormone that increases milk production. The recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST) is injected into a dairy cow to supplement the natural occurring levels of bovine somatotropin.  This will increase both her milk production and feed intake. The FDA has approved rBST and it has been available to dairy producers since 1994.

So why use rBST?

Research has shown that rBST increases milk production per cow and also decreases the cost of production of milk. Increased production results in lower costs to the consumer.

Is it safe?

Federally conducted studies have shown rBST to be safe and it does not change the composition of milk in a biologically relevant manner. In fact, there are no laboratory tests that can identify whether milk came from a cow treated with rBST or not.

Why not use rBST?

Consumer concern and personal preference are the two main reasons that dairy farmers choose not to use rBST. As it becomes common practice to label dairy foods “rBST free,” many dairy processing companies are asking farmers to pledge that they will not use rBST on their animals. Other farmers just have no interest in using it and choose to increase milk production through the use of genetic selection, nutrition and animal care. 

Misconceptions about rBST and its effect on humans

Some concern about the use of rBST comes from the thought that consumption of milk treated with rBST leads to an increase in hormones in the body, specifically females maturing faster due to increased hormones. However, something to remember is that rBST in milk is actually a protein. Milk with rBST when ingested by mouth, is digested and broken into constituent amino acids in your GI tract, just like every other protein consumed, and therefore results in zero impact as a growth hormone. Even if it did survive digestion, your body wouldn’t recognize bovine somatropin because its structure is only recognized by receptors in cows. A better explanation for children entering puberty early is a result of higher body-mass indexes. In a study published by Dr. Paul Kaplowitz, an MD focused on pediatric endocrinology in Washington, D.C., a better explanation for the earlier onset of puberty in children can be correlated to the rise in nationwide rates of obesity.

In conclusion, while you may see this label frequently in the dairy aisle, rBST isn’t something to be feared. It’s a tool for dairy farmers that’s been proven safe and has been available for over two decades. However, the practice isn’t used much anymore because of consumer demand.


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