Parliamentary Research Branch


PRB 98-1E


Prepared by:
Frédéric Forge
Science and Technology Division
October 1998

United States

Sales of recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) have been permitted in the United States since February 1994. American law does not require the milk from rbST-treated cows to be labelled as such, although it is possible to label milk as being rbST-free. Where this is done, however, it must also be indicated that the Food and Drug Administration has determined that there is no significant difference between the milk from cows treated with rbST and milk from cows that have not been so treated.

American consumer reaction has been studied by Georges Brinkman, an economist at the University of Guelph.

In the year following the introduction of rbST, milk consumption remained steady. It would appear that this trend can be explained primarily by the fact that the product available did not make distinctions: in the United States, milk is not identified as coming or not coming from cows treated with rbST. Milk may be labelled as rbST-free, provided that it is also specified that there is no significant difference in the milk of cows that have been treated with rbST and cows that have not. During the period from January to August 1996, milk consumption even increased by 0.9% over the figure for the same period in 1995.

It is thought that sales of milk recognized as being rbST-free account for less than 2% of total milk sales in the United States. The milk identified as being rbST-free sells at prices between 10 and 15% higher than those for milk that is not identified in this way.

In markets where the introduction of rbST caused serious concerns, the sale of milk identified as being rbST-free has declined; in 1995 it accounted for at most only 5% of total sales in the state of New York and in Minneapolis. In Wisconsin and Vermont, however, buying habits are different. In Wisconsin, milk identified as being rbST-free was the choice of most consumers in 1995; however, in 1996, most milk sold for consumption in that state was unlabelled and could have come from cows treated with the hormone. In Vermont, consumer milk from companies known to produce rbST-free milk represented most of the sales in 1996. In these two States, a double system offering both and undifferentiated milk seems to have been necessary to maintain sales. However, opposition to rbST apparently resulted in part from concerns about a threat to the rural way of life and came as much from producers as consumers.

Across the country, studies conducted in 1996 showed that rbST was no longer of concern to American consumers. Milk consumption in the United States seems to vary more according to price increases, advertising and fat content than to the use of this hormone.

European Union

Even though it claims that rbST has no impact on human health, the European Union has imposed a moratorium on the use of this hormone until 31 December 1999. This decision was based essentially on social and economic considerations such as a fear of penalizing small farmers, the existence of milk surpluses and the fear of consumer reaction. The European Union also apparently declared that use of rbST was contrary to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). However, there is no ban on the importation of dairy products from countries that have approved the use of rbST.

In March 1993, the Group of Advisers on the Ethics of Biotechnology (GAEB), appointed by the European Commission, stated that a decision on whether or not to market rbST in the European Union was primarily a political matter. In June 1998, the Institute of Food Science and Technology in Great British announced that there was no scientific or moral reason to require labelling identifying between milk or meat from rbST-treated cows. In July 1997, the Netherlands, speaking for the European Union, proposed a motion to the Codex alimentarius(1) requesting a postponement of the establishment of a maximum limit for residues in order to allow for a reassessment by the Joint FAO-WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives of the data concerning human health and a review of the "application of factors other than the scientific analysis." The European Union is also seeking to legitimize its approach to assessing the product using other than scientific criteria.

Other Countries

Besides the United States, the following countries have authorized the use of rbST: South Africa, Brazil, Colombia, Korea, Costa Rica, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Honduras, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, Peru, Russia, Slovakia, Turkey and Zimbabwe.

After a 12-month-long study, Australia decided in September 1992 not to approve rbST for purely commercial reasons. In fact, most Australian exports of dairy products are to countries that have not approved rbST. The issue has not been reopened since that time.


(1) See footnote (6).