Milk Quality is Not What it Used to Be

Andy McGuire, Extension Educator

If you "got milk" the question now may be whether to drink it or not. Three separate efforts are underway to determine if milk is as healthy as it once was. It is not the milk that is in question, however, but what man has done to the contents of milk.

Dioxin is a recent unnatural addition to milk that has been linked to cancer, learning disabilities, infertility, birth defects, reduced sperm counts, impaired immune systems, and diabetes. It gets into milk through an unlikely source: our health care system. Hospitals have become more dependent on disposable products for treating and preventing disease and upon incineration as a means of treating waste. The EPA considers this incineration to be among the top identified sources of airborne dioxin.

Once in the air, dioxin can travel hundreds of miles before landing. When it lands on hay fields or grazing pastures, it can be eaten by beef or dairy cattle that then store the dioxin in their fat. Humans are exposed when they eat beef and drink milk. The EPA has estimated that 70% of human dioxin exposure through food comes from beef and dairy products. They estimate that the average daily exposure to dioxin through food is 300 to 500 times the "virtually safe" dose of 0.01 picograms.

The dioxin is not coming from farmers, but they are the ones who will suffer if consumers reduce their milk and beef consumption to protect themselves. An effort to find a solution to this problem is underway through a coalition of farmers, scientists, doctors, nurses, labor, religious, environmental and health advocate groups. They have formed a group called "Health Care without Harm" which is being supported by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. The pamphlet from which this article has been adapted is available along with more information from Jackie Hunt Christensen, 612-870-3424, e-mail:, 2105 First Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55404.

A substance called insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) is another chemical in milk that is being studied. IGF-1 is a naturally occurring growth hormone found in blood, but it has recently been linked to both breast cancer and prostate cancer. Scientists are concerned that IGF-1 levels in our blood may be increased by drinking milk with high levels of IGF-1. They have found that cows treated with the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone, rBGH, produce milk with elevated levels of IGF-1. This IGF-1 can pass into peopleís bloodstream when they drink this milk.

For research references and information read Rachaelís Environment and Health Weekly #598 at or contact the Environmental Research Foundation, PO Box 5036, Annapolis, MD 21403.

The last milk component under study is called conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA. Unlike dioxin or IGF-1, CLA is an anti-carcinogen. It occurs naturally in many foods, but meat and milk from ruminant animals have especially high levels. The only way humans get CLA is through these foods.

As reported in the May Ď98 Stockman Grass Farmer, Dr. Tikak Dhiman of the University of Utah is studying ways to increase CLA in milk, cheese, and meat. He is concerned that the recent calls to cut fat from diets may reduce intake of beneficial CLA. "We must distinguish between types of fats. We tend to think that all fat is bad for us, but nutrition is very complex and we donít know everything about it."

Dr. Dhiman and others have found that cows that graze green ryegrass or natural pasture produce milk with CLA levels five times that of milk from cows fed a diet of 50% hay or silage and 50% grain. Dhiman says, "We cut our consumption of CLA when we changed the way we feed animals. Today we are producing milk more efficiently with controlled feeding. However, we need to couple this efficiency with milk and meat quality." For the full article see the Stockman Grass Farmer, May Ď98.

Based on all this information, a person that "got milk" ought to have rBGH-free milk produced thousands of miles from a hospital from grass-fed cows. Another option is to work to create a food system that eliminates these unintended consequences of technology.

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