Daily Archives: April 14, 2012

Greg Palast on Monsanto Milk

The following is an excerpt from Greg Palast’s 2003 book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. At the end is a pdf of the book for downloading. This book is a must-read. If you read it and believe in what Palast is doing, go to his website, gregpalast.com, and help him out if you can.

Then there’s the story of Monsanto’s genetically modified milk-making hormone. The stuff caused company test cows to drip pus into milk buckets. Yummy. Monsanto fixed that problem the easy way-by burying test data. U.S. officials helped out, slipping the company confidential regulatory documents. American journals couldn’t cover that. They were too busy licking the loafers of Monsanto’s Robert Shapiro, GE’s Jack Welch and Enron’s Ken Lay to write something not cribbed off a company press release….

Former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower told me, “They’ve eliminated the middleman. The corporations don’t have to lobby the government anymore. They are the government.” Hightower used to complain about Monsanto’s lobbying the secretary of agriculture. Today, Monsanto executive Ann Venamin is the secretary of agriculture….

And the Ignoble Prize in Chemistry… Goes to Monsanto!

In May 1999 a cache of documents fell out of a low-flying airplane and onto my desk at the Observer. However they ended up in my possession, they certainly came by an interesting route: from the files of WTO food safety regulators, where they had been filched by u.s. functionaries, and passed under the table to Monsanto. This was fresh evidence of a dangerous new epidemic: the infection of science by corporate cash.

The pile included copies of letters, memoranda and meeting notes indicating that Monsanto obtained crucial restricted documents from a key international regulatory committee investigating the company’s controversial bovine growth hormone, called BST, as in BEAST. A shot of BST boosts a cow’s milk output.

But European and American experts say BST has such yummy side effects as increasing the amount of pus in milk, promoting infection in cow udders and potentially increasing the risk of breast and prostate cancer in humans who drink BST-Iaced milk.

According to a November 1997 internal Canadian health ministry memo that came my way, Monsanto got its hands on advance copies of three volumes of position papers intended for review in closed meetings of the UN World Health Organization’s Joint Experts Committee on Food Additives. This is one valuable set of documents. The European Community’s ban on the genetically altered hormone was set to expire in 1999, and the Experts Committee advised the international commission that would be voting on whether to add Monsanto BST to something called the Codex Alimentarius-the international list of approved food additives. Codex listing would make it difficult for nations to block imports of BST-boosted foods.

Monsanto’s cache included confidential submissions by the EC’s directors general for food and agriculture as well as analysis by British pharmacologist John Verrall.

I spoke with Verrall just after he learned his commentary was passed to Monsanto. Verrall was stunned not just by selective release of reports he believed confidential- participants sign nondisclosure statements about the proceedings—but by the source of the leak. The memo identifies Monsanto’s conduit from the UN experts’ committee as Dr. Nick Weber of the u.s. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Dr. Weber, it turns out, works at the FDA under the supervision of Margaret Miller. Dr. Miller, before joining government, headed a Monsanto laboratory studying and promoting BST.

After scouring the purloined committee documents, Monsanto faxed a warning to company allies in government that one participant on the Experts Committee, Dr. Michael Hansen, “is not completely on board.” Indeed he was not. Hansen was furious. A BST expert with the Consumers’ Policy Institute of Washington, Hansen interprets the memos to mean that some U.S. and Canadian authorities, supposedly acting as objective, unaffiliated scientists, were in fact working in cahoots with Monsanto as advocates for the producer.

Other memos discuss plans by u.s. and Canadian officials sympathetic to Monsanto, to “share their communication strategy” with industry. The plan was to lobby members of the Experts Committee. Monsanto would secretly provide help in preparing a response to critics of BST ahead of the vote of the experts panel scheduled for February 1998. Whether the scheme using inside information affected the outcome, we don’t know. We do know Monsanto won that vote.

Because proceedings were confidential, we cannot know how a majority overcame objections of known dissenters. But we can presume Monsanto was not harmed by the late addition of BST defender Dr. Len Ritter to the deliberations. Ritter was the “Manchurian candidate” of Big Pharma on the committee. An intra-office memo obtained from Canada’s Bureau of Veterinary Drugs states that Ritter’s name was subtly suggested to the bureau’s director in an August 1997 phone call from Dr. David Kowalczyk, Monsanto’s regulatory affairs honcho.

Of course, there is not much value to Monsanto in obtaining government approvals to sell BST-laden milk if no one will buy the stuff. Luckily for Monsanto, the u.s. FDA not only refuses to require labeling hormone-laced products, but in 1994 published a rule that effectively barred dairies from printing “BST-free” on milk products. This strange milk carton exception to America’s Bill of Rights was signed by Michael Taylor, deputy to the FDA commissioner. Prior to joining the U.S. agency, Taylor practiced law with the firm of King & Spalding, where he represented Monsanto. Taylor, no longer in government, did not return our calls to his office at his current employer—Monsanto Washington.

Monsanto does not just place friends in government, it likes to make friends.

Canadian Health Ministry researcher Dr. Margaret Haydon told me Monsanto offered her bureau $1 million in a 1994 meeting in return for their authorizing the sale of BST. Monsanto counters the funds were proffered solely to support the cashstrapped agency’s research. When asked if he considered the Monsanto offer “a bribe,” Haydon’s supervisor replied, “Certainly!” though he said he laughed off the proposal.

No one’s laughing now. Haydon and five other government scientists filed an extraordinary plea with Canada’s industrial tribunal seeking protection for their jobs and careers. They feared retaliation for ripping the cover off long-hidden, highly damaging facts about BST. America’s rush to approve the hormone in 1993 rested on a study published in the journal Science by FDA researchers, which concluded there were no “significant changes” in BST-fed rats. The rats tell a different tale. Their autopsies revealed thyroid cysts, prostate problems and signs of BST invading their blood. The Monsanto-sponsored U.S. researchers failed to publish these facts and the FDA sealed the complete study, saying its public release would “irreparably harm” Monsanto. Indeed it would.

The Canadian scientists, finally winning access to the full study, blew the whistle on the rat cover-up. The facts became public via their labor board action, a decade after the original, misleading report. By then BST had received U.S. FDA approval as safe.

I regret singling out Monsanto if only because I’m left with so little room to honor other corporate nominees for the Ignoble Prize in Chemistry. BST expert John Verrall, a member of the U.K. Food Ethics Council, says the Monsanto episode only illustrates a trend in which “Multinational corporations have let morals slide down the scale of priorities.” He concludes-in what must be a sly reference to everyone’s favorite White House intern-“The white coat of science has been stained.”