As springtime hits the countryside, and baseball season comes into full swing, Major League Baseball continues to be gripped by the scandal unveiled in December that the sport is plagued by players who have used performance-enhancing drugs to hit the ball farther and throw the ball harder. The Mitchell Report, and the congressional hearings that followed, revealed that many players have chosen to take steroids or synthetic hormones in order to give them an edge in the highly competitive sport. According to the report, “Everyone involved in Major League Baseball should join in a well planned, well-executed, and sustained effort to bring the era of steroids and human growth hormone to an end and to prevent its recurrence in some other form in the future. That is the only way this cloud will be removed from the game.”
At the same time, around the country, a different story about synthetic hormones is unfolding. While not a major league sport, dairy farming is also a performance-based industry. Dairy farmers are paid based on the volume of milk their cows produce. Every day as they run their farms, dairy farmers are watching their cows, and looking for ways to run their business as best they can. By watching the cows’ nutrition, ensuring good pasture, and healthy living conditions, farmers can maintain excellent production standards, in much the same way that good physical training and diet can enhance a baseball player’s statistics. However, in the same way that some baseball players have chosen steroids to enhance their batting averages, since 1993, some dairy farmers have been using a synthetic hormone to increase their milk production.
It seems strange to some that in baseball synthetic hormones are the subject of intense scrutiny and scorn by the game’s authorities—should users be allowed to remain in Major League Baseball, or should they be banned, or in some cases, go to jail? On the other hand, in dairy farming, synthetic hormones are considered safe by many industry and governmental authorities. These advocates say consumers do not need to know, or be concerned with, whether the synthetic hormones are used in producing the foods they eat. Both issues raise the question of performance enhancing drugs: should their use be challenged, or are they simply a fact of life today and into the future?
The issue has become even more evident as more and more retailers announce that the milk in the stores will no longer come from cows treated with rBGH. In March, Walmart announced that its “Great Value” milk will be “rbgh-free”. "We value our customers' opinions and understand how important variety is in all aspects of the business," said Pam Kohn, senior vice president, general merchandise manager, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. "We've listened to customers and are pleased that our suppliers are helping us offer Great Value milk from cows that are not treated with rbST." Wal-Mart has joined other giant retailers like Safeway and Kroger in this move to respond to consumers’ requests. However, in several states, the governments are now considering whether to try to stop this move away from rBGH. Starting in Pennsylvania last fall, and continuing in Utah, Kansas, Indiana and Ohio, state governments have been considering prohibiting labels on dairy products stating that the milk in those products is “rBGH-free” or “from cows not treated with rBGH”.
Monsanto, the maker of rBGH, argues that there is no difference between the two types of milk. According to Monsanto, and activist groups they support, consumers are being fooled into buying no-rBGH milk, often paying more for milk that the FDA states is just the same as regular milk. The FDA allows these statements, but asks that producers include a disclaimer that says there is no significant difference between milk from treated cows and untreated cows. According to the FDA, rBGH is safe for the cow and safe for the consumer. However, increasing demand for rBGH-free or organic milk seems to imply that the consumer is looking for milk from cows not treated with hormones. So, why are consumers concerned about hormones - are they questioning why hormones are okay for their cows, but not for their baseball players?