The debate over labeling milk from cows treated with bovinesomatotropin (BST) has extended beyond whether the productis safe and into the realm of consumer concerns.

FDA Commissioner David Kessler asked the members of theJoint Committee on Food and Medicine not to restrict theirresponses to issues under the agency's jurisdiction, but toconcentrate on a wide-ranging debate over labeling.

Among the questions he asked them: Was knowledge ofwhether milk came from BST-treated bovines important toconsumers, and if so, why? Were there implications for foodlabeling generally if foods from BST-treated cows were solabeled? Were there "sound public policy reasons for requiringor encouraging such disclosure?"

This broad mandate resulted from the precedent-setting natureof the debate. This is the first time the agency has dealt withlabeling an aspect of the production process.

Kessler also wanted to lay the groundwork for other agenciesthat might have to act on related matters, said Jane Henney,FDA's deputy commissioner for operations.

Early on Friday, some committee members tried to restrict thedebate to health and safety, but Henney quickly steered themback to the murkier stuff. Many committee members fearedthat process labeling would become a slippery slope, openingFDA to demands by activists for labeling when any productiondrugs, pesticides or herbicides are used in food production.

Most committee members had no doubts about the safety ofBST to consumers, and therefore felt there was no need forlabeling. Others, however, warned of the potential dangers ofnot labeling the milk.

"Without labeling, the consequence will be that every farmerwill use BST, which no farmer needs, and there will be nobenefit whatsoever," said food committee member JeffreySteingarten of Vogue Magazine.

"The consumer should have a right to vote with his or herdollars for the kind of world he or she wants" on issues such asincreasing concentration of wealth in large farms at theexpense of family farms, and cruelty to animals, he said.Steingarten also argued that overly intense production mightdamage farmland. "If there is any basis for believing that, thenthis is a health issue," he said.

Veterinary Advisory Committee Chairman Stephen Sundlof,professor in the college of veterinary medicine at theUniversity of Florida argued that labeling is unnecessarybecause the market would find a niche non-BST milk. But TuftsUniversity nutrition professor and columnist Jeanne Goldbergcountered that many consumers who would want to buy suchmilk would be unable to afford specialty-store prices.

Goldberg also warned that "if BST is approved, it will becomevery important to a lot more consumers than we ever dreamed,and there will be the kind of protest that we saw (from thePure Food Campaign on the previous day)."

Lack of labeling would lead to charges of cover-up, she said,and would undermine the reputation of the U.S. food supply asthe safest in the world.

Consumer activist and Columbia University nutrition professorJoan Gussow implied that the growth hormone tainted the restof biotechnology when she said, "I was hoping BST would turnout to be the SST of biotechnology."

Normally, the final decision on BST approval would rest withthe head of the Veterinary Medicine Committee. But it appearsthat Kessler will make the final decisions on both issues, withhelp from Henney, after the two of them review materials fromthe various hearings that have taken place. Henney refused tospeculate when the decision would be made.

Meanwhile, on April 28 the FDA requested comments on theissue of whether all foods derived with the help ofbiotechnology should be labeled. Comments should reach theagency's dockets management branch (FDA, Room I-23, 12420Parklawn Dr., Rockville, Md. 20857) before July 27.

-- David C. Holzman Washington Editor

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.