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Milk Is No Place for Experimentation : GAO raises human safety question related to the use of growth hormone in test herds

August 16, 1992

Stop before you take a gulp from that cold glass of milk or sink your teeth in a juicy hamburger. You may already think twice if you're watching your weight or cholesterol level. But you may have to think yet again if the Food and Drug Administration does not heed the advice of the General Accounting Office to ban the sale of milk and meat from cows treated with an experimental growth hormone.

Suspending sales to consumers is a smart thing because of rising concern about the synthetic drug's indirect health effects on humans. The amounts of milk and meat that would be kept off the market are very small--only about a dozen experimental herds around the country are being treated with the bovine growth hormone. The FDA now allows the commercial sale of both milk and meat from the herds.

The FDA maintains that food derived from such cows is safe for human consumption. The GAO concurs that the hormone, used to boost milk production, is not a direct threat to humans. But it causes a condition in cows known as mastitis, an inflammation of the udder that is treated with antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline.

"As a consequence, higher levels of antibiotic residues in milk and beef could result," the GAO cautioned. Congress' investigative arm said the Food and Drug Administration does not have a testing procedure to guarantee that milk from these cows does not contain dangerously high levels of antibiotics.

The GAO said the FDA should study the extent to which mastitis in test herds is treated with antibiotics and also study the level of antibiotic residues in hormone-treated cows.

Pending those studies, the GAO recommended banning the sale of milk and beef from such cows. It also said the FDA should study the possibility of labeling products from animals under drug testing. The GAO had reported earlier this month that government inspectors routinely test milk for only four of 82 drugs used to treat dairy cows.

Research on the safety and effectiveness of the growth hormone began in 1985. The FDA is now evaluating those studies. Gerald Guest, director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the drug is not ready for approval and that research, including study of the antibiotics question, is continuing.

The conclusions of the GAO raise too many safety questions. Prudence calls for no sale of milk or meat from the cows involved until the safety issues are resolved.

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