Milk Does the Body Good... or Does It? Dairy Industry Confusion

Posted in Controversy

Milk Does the Body Good... or Does It? Dairy Industry Confusion

Rumour has it that our milk contains hormones and is dangerous for human consumption, at least this is what the Facebook feed said. Um, what? As a consumer it is important to me to understand our food systems so that I can make informed, healthful, and environmentally sound choices about the food I eat. We know that an individual's food choices are largely based on one's own value systems. However, as a dietitian it is my responsibility to understand food systems and food safety as best as I can to provide accurate and appropriate messages to the public. I grew up drinking 1% milk, and eating cheese and yogurt and I never remember my mother having concerns. With the ease of the web and social media, it is easy to get caught up in the mass of information (reputable or not). Has the industry changed or are we receiving mixed messages and misguided information?

My search began with hormones. Hormones that promote growth are naturally occurring in humans and animals in the form of somatotropin. The synthetic form used for dairy cows is called recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST). This particular synthetic hormone was produced to increase milk production in dairy cattle. Research into rbST began in 1985 by Health Canada with support from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association. Although the research showed there were no risks to human health, there were animal health concerns. Studies found the use of rbST increased risk for mastitis (inflammation of breast tissue), infertility, reactions at injection sites and lameness in cows. In January 1999 Health Canada announced that it would NOT approve the sale of rbST based on the potential harm to cows. This was supported by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare. To this date, Health Canada is the only governing body who is responsible for decisions made around rbST and the hormone is still not permitted for sale in Canada. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for dairy cows raised in the United States. In February 1994, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the use of rbST and approval continues today, which may be where the confusion and controversy comes from. 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. This comes from a document dated 1999, so these standards may or may not have changed. After a 12-month-long study, Australia also decided in September 1992 not to approve rbST. Because dairy products are identified by their country of origin, the consumer can then decide whether or not to purchase products from countries that have already approved rbST.

Moving on, my next concern is the use of antibiotics. The Association of Medical Microbiology and Infectious Disease Canada suggests that the concern is related to the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria. When antibiotics are used too often or used improperly, they can kill the vulnerable bacteria in the body, but leave some of the resistant ones to grow and spread. Thus, we need to be responsible about the antibiotics we take and administer to animals. It is reported that mastitis is the most common reason for antibiotic use in dairy cows (and remember the part about rbST use and increased risk for mastitis?). Antibiotics in Canadian cows are used to treat infection and to prevent further risk to the cow's health, but the milk collected from the treated cow must be withheld and discarded. The cow undergoes a minimum withdrawal period before the milk from that cow can be used again for food production. When the milk is picked up from each farm, the Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is responsible for testing milk for residue levels of antibiotics and hormones. Before milk is sold to consumers, it undergoes a process called pasteurization - the milk is heated to a certain temperature for a certain amount of time to kill any harmful bacteria, yet retaining nutritional quality. Bacteria such as Salmonella, Listeria and E. Coli have been found in unpasteurized milk.

How do organic dairy farms differ? On an organic farm, all cows must have daily access to pesticide/herbicide free pasture, paddocks or runways. The cows must be fed a nutritionally balanced organic feed. However, the use of antibiotics can still be used to treat infection. The welfare of the animal comes first and organic standards forbid the withholding of any type of treatment and potential for prolonged suffering of the cow. Again, the milk must undergo a minimal withdrawal period before the milk can be considered organic again. Organic or non-organic the Canadian Dairy Commission, Dairy Farmer's of Canada, Dairy Processors Association of Canada, the CFIA, Agriculture and Agra-Food Canada, the provincial regulatory bodies and even groups like British Colombia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are all looking out for regulation of sound dairy production practices, food safety and humane animal care in Canada's dairy cows.

This blog post is not meant to convince any non-dairy consumers to start drinking milk and certainly there remain a host of opinions about whether or not humans were even meant to drink cows milk. This blog post is merely meant to clarify some of the misinformation being shared on the web. Regardless, many Canadians DO enjoy dairy products. Where would we be without wine and… what, no cheese? At the very least, the dairy consumers can be better informed and even take the extra step to ensure the purchase of Canadian made dairy products, supporting the local industry. The food regulatory systems in Canada and the USA are different and guided by different standards. There may be similarities at times, but what happens in one country cannot be blindly accepted as what happens in the next.

I am certainly relieved to know that I can continue to enjoy hormone-free, Canadian-made milk, yogurt, cheese and butter. I am not cows-milk biased, and do enjoy a variety of milk alternatives switching up my "dairy" beverage between cows milk and soy, almond or oat milk. Aside from the nutritional benefits of dairy such as vitamins B12 and riboflavin, calcium and high quality protein, for me it's about the variety of choice that is added to my snacks and meals.

Say YES to hormone-free milk products… choose Canadian.


Works Cited

Antibiotic Awareness (2012). Antibiotic Use and Resistance. Retrieved from:

Canadian Quality Milk Program (2010).Canadian Dairy Information Centre. Retrieved from:

Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (2008). Antimicrobial Prudent Use Guidelines for Beef Cattle, Dairy Cattle, Poultry and Swine. Retrieved from:,%20Dairy,%20Poultry%20and%20Swine%202009.pdf

Forge, Frederic (1999). Recombinant Bovine Somatotropine. Parliamentary Research Branch: Science and Technology Division. Received from:

Health Canada (2012). Hormonal Growth Promoters. Retrieved from:

Hermans, E., Barkema, H.W., Werven, T.V. (2008). The use of Antibiotics in Canadian Dairy Farms. Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Calgary.