What’s with rBST free milk labelling in South Africa today?

rBST free label South AfricarBST free milk label South AfricaUntil a few years ago I didn’t know about rBST in milk. I didn’t know that artificial hormones were permitted to be given to South African cows to raise milk production, regardless of possible ill effects to the cows and to the humans drinking the milk. As soon as I read about it here, I made sure I only bought milk labelled as rBST free. Only now the rules on labels seem to be changing.

The genetically modified growth hormone rBST (rBGH) is banned in Europe, Canada and New Zealand. It is produced by GMO giant Monsanto and there is controversy surrounding its continuing use in the US. Possible long term effects to humans from exposure to the hormone, from drinking and eating dairy products from cows treated with it, are various cancers. For the cows the side-effects are increased risk of mastitis, requiring the use of antibiotics. The hormone speeds up their metabolism, putting more stress on their systems and reducing their useful life-span.

The powers that be continue to assure us that the use of the hormone is completely safe, but other authorities stress the contrary. Who are we to believe?

In the end it comes down to making a personal choice. We should have the right to choose shouldn’t we? But since labelling regulations got stricter this becomes even more complicated.

Until recently the rBST label was to be found on several milk brands – Clover and Pick and Pay, as well as Woolworths, Fair Cape and some of the smaller dairies. However on a recent shopping trip I found that Clover and Pick and Pay no longer label their milk as rBST free. A new labelling act apparently states that suppliers must be able to prove that their milk is free of artificial hormones (cows always produce their own natural hormones so no-one can correctly state that their milk is hormone free). There is no straightforward test that can prove it, so the only way is to prove that the cows supplying the milk have never been treated with the hormone. Due to fears of court-cases, Clover and some of the bigger dairies have obviously decided not to risk using the label, though Clover still state that their milk is sourced from dairy herds that are not treated with the hormone. Woolworths and Fair Cape continue to use the label, perhaps because they feel more secure in their sources?

What makes it so difficult to investigate is that almost no-one admits to using the hormone, yet about 30% of South African dairy farmers apparently are using it, driven by economic pressure to increase their milk yields any which way they can. There is a whole fog of misinformation out there, which hasn’t been helped by the stricter labelling laws. The laws should have made things clearer and less confusing for the consumer, but have ended up with the opposite effect.

How can I tell if the milk I am buying is not labelled rBST free because of over-caution on the part of the company even though the milk probably is rBST free, or because it comes from cows that are treated with the hormone?

Do I give up and buy my own cow? Visit the local dairy that supplies my milk and insist on seeing all their records and interviewing their vet? Become a vegan and start worrying about GM corn and soy instead?

Probably I should do one of the above, but since I am just muddling along like most of us, doing my best under the circumstances, I’ll just continue to look for the rBST free label, hoping that I can trust it, and buying from small local dairies in the hope that they are more accountable than large, faceless organisations. Hope and trust… or should I get that cow?!

Edited to add: I’ve had a response from both Clover and Pick and Pay in response to my enquiry into whether their milk is still rBST free. For the record this is what they said:

PnP: “Please note all our mil is currently rBST free.  However there is no test method available for this.  In terms of the new labelling legislation and consumer protection act, if a claim is made, one needs to have the scientific evidence to support this.  We are in the process of signing an agreement with our milk suppleirs to confirm this so that we can reintroduce this logo onto our packaging.”

Clover: “Thank you for your e-mail and concern.   The reason we do not have the rBST free sign on the milk anymore is because of the new labelling act.  We are only allowed to have it on our milk if we can “prove” by testing that there are no hormones in the milk.  Unfortunately there is not one machine in the whole Africa that can test hormones in milk.

I can assure you that Clover does not use hormones on our cows.  We have written agreements with our farmers and regular inspections with a vet is made to inspect the cows if they are not injected with hormones, and also how they are treated and how they graze.”

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