Parliamentary Research Branch


PRB 98-1E


Prepared by:
Frédéric Forge
Science and Technology Division
October 1998

Recent developments relating to recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) on the international level raise a number of questions concerning its approval in Canada.

First of all, in February 1998, the Joint FAO-WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives concluded that milk and meat from rbST-treated cows did not pose any danger to human health. The Committee’s report was sent to the Codex alimentarius,(1) which will examine it during the summer of 1999.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) is making increasing use of the decisions of the Codex alimentarius as a technical and scientific reference when it has to resolve trade disputes between countries (see the decision of the Canada-Europe panel on bans of imports of beef from Canada to Europe). Nevertheless, participating countries are not obliged to abide by decisions of the Codex alimentarius.

In fact, in accordance with its human health approach, the Codex alimentarius is dealing with the rbST problem solely in terms of the change in the composition of milk (residues of rbST, IGF-1 and so on). When the question of whether standards should be adopted for maximum levels of somatotropin residues was examined by the Codex alimentarius in July 1997, consumer representatives and the representatives of several countries argued that the use of rbST would meet with opposition from consumers and that the hormone did not improve the quality of the milk or its health characteristics. In Canada some people object to the use of rbST because they have reservations about its long-term effects on human health. Others oppose its use on the grounds that we already have more milk than we need, the economic effectiveness of rbST has not been proven in all cases, and it is not wanted by consumers, producers, or the dairy industry. The European Union (EU), for its part, has requested that "legitimate factors other than scientific analysis" be taken into account.

In Canada, some groups have argued that it would be difficult to justify a ban on the use of rbST on the basis of criteria other than public health, since this would make it necessary to review the approach taken to all the other products of biotechnology.

Given the uncertainty about the effects of rbST on human health, the debate remains inconclusive.


(1) The Codex alimentarius (the Latin term for food code) Commission is part of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and has 146 member countries. Since it was established in 1962, one of its goals has been to define food standards and codes governing hygiene and technology in light of the safety of food additives and contaminants (it has evaluated more than 700 additives and determined more than 3,200 maximum levels of pesticide residues).