The material for this series is drawn from my books Genetic Roulette and Seeds of Deception, and my 18-minute online film Your Milk on Drugs—Just Say No!.
Get Our Milk off Drugs, Part 3
I know from personal experience how satisfying it is to catch some nasty multinational corporation telling lies about the safety of their product—especially when that company is Monsanto, the world’s largest maker of genetically modified (GM) foods. So I could only imagine the excitement of investigative reporters Jane Akre and Steve Wilson, who had caught a Monsanto executive on film repeatedly lying about GM bovine growth hormone (rbGH or rbST).
The two worked at WTVT, a Fox television station in Tampa, Florida, and were described as a “television dream team.” Akre was a former CNN anchorwoman and reporter, Wilson a three-time Emmy Award winner whom Penthouse described as “one of the most famous and feared journalists in America.” Their four-part news series on rbGH was scheduled to begin on February 24, 1997. It was going to expose Monsanto’s lies to the world, and show how the milk from treated cows was dangerously linked to cancer.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Monsanto’s Lies
Monsanto’s dairy research director Bob Collier, PhD, was the rbGH front man who was interviewed by Jane Akre. Here is a sample of some of his claims.
Collier said, [rbGH] “is the single most-tested product in history.” The reporters, however, found that “experts in the field of domestic animal science say that this claim is demonstrably false.”
When asked why rbGH had not been approved in Europe, he said the EU “approved it technically from a safety standpoint, but the dairy policy there was such that they still have price supports . . . it proved to be a moratorium based on market issues not health issues.”
In reality, health was Europe’s key reason for banning the drug. A December 1994 letter from the Vice President of the Agriculture Committee of the European Commission to the director of the FDA stated,
“Consumers in the European Community and their representatives in the European Parliament are apparently much more concerned about the unresolved human health issues related to [rbGH] than your agency was when it authorized the product.”
When Akre asked Collier whether injections “rev up” the cows, he said the hormone “does not change the basal metabolic rate, it merely increases the amount of milk produced.” But his statement is contradicted even by Monsanto’s literature.
Injected cows also have much higher levels of udder infections, which put more pus in the milk. To treat this, farmers use more antibiotics, which also end up in the milk. But Collier claimed that increased levels of antibiotics in the milk weren’t a problem, since every truckload of milk is tested. But scientists and Florida dairy officials told the reporters that each truckload is only tested for penicillin-related antibiotics. There’s also a spot check for one other antibiotic every three months Such monitoring misses most of the more than 60 varieties of antibiotics used by dairy farmers.
Collier also made the wild claim, “We have not opposed” voluntary labeling of products as rbGH-free. In truth, Monsanto filed lawsuits against two small dairies to force them to stop labeling their milk as rbGH-free. According to Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly “The dairies folded and Monsanto then sent letters around to other dairy organizations announcing the outcome of the two lawsuits—in all likelihood, for purposes of intimidation.” Years later, as the trend towards rbGH-free milk started taking off, Monsanto asked the FDA and FTC to make such label claims illegal. When the feds turned down their request, Monsanto asked state governments to ban the labels.
At one point in the interview, Akre had had enough of Collier’s lies. She was not going to let him get away with it anymore. (Here is an excerpt from my book Seeds of Deception.)
Akre redirected the conversation to IGF-1, the growth hormone associated with cancer. Akre recollected, “I asked about the limited testing for the effects of altered milk on humans. Collier tells me ‘because the concentration of IGF-1 . . . doesn’t change, there is no change in exposure, so the FDA concluded there is no indication that long-term chronic studies were justified.’”
Now Akre was ready. She reached into a stack of papers on her lap—research she had collected and some of the five pounds of documents sent to her by Monsanto, which, she is sure, they didn’t expect her to read.
Akre pulled out an FDA report published in Science 1990, stating that Monsanto’s own studies clearly show an increase of IGF-1 in milk. Colliers, who was fidgeting, clearing his throat, and stammering, was clearly uncomfortable.
He reassured her that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Government Accounting Office also review the process for human safety and concluded that Monsanto’s test process was correct. But Akre was ready again: “I pull out an American Medical Association report that says further study is needed as to the effects of IGF-1 on humans.” She points out that the NIH also said more study is needed.
Collier then tried to claim that IGF-1 is destroyed during the process of digestion, but Akre had read the studies and knew that too was false.
Akre and Wilson wove Collier’s lies throughout their 4-part series, which made it clear that rbGH was a potentially huge public health danger. They were sure the program would have a big impact. They were right, but it wasn’t what they planned.
Monsanto Threatens Fox
On the Friday before Monday’s air date, Monsanto’s lawyer faxed a letter to Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News in New York, claiming that the series was biased and unscientific. It threatened, “There is a lot at stake in what is going on in Florida, not only for Monsanto, but also for Fox News and its owner.” Rupert Murdoch, of course is the owner, and part of what was at stake was lots of Monsanto advertising dollars—for the Florida station, the entire Fox network, and Murdoch’s Actmedia, a major advertising agency used by Monsanto. Fox pulled the series for “further review.”
After the Florida station’s general manager, who had a background in investigative reporting, meticulously vetted the show, he verified that every statement was accurate and unbiased. The station re-scheduled the series for the following week.
Monsanto’s attorney immediately sent another, more strongly worded letter to Ailes, this time indicating that the news story “could lead to serious damage to Monsanto and dire consequences for Fox News.” The airing was postponed indefinitely.
The Florida station’s general manager and news manager were soon fired, and according to Wilson, the new general manager was a salesman with no news experience. Wilson tried to convince him to run the rbGH story on its merits. He said Monsanto’s whole PR campaign was based on the false statement that milk from rbGH-treated cows is “the same safe wholesome product we’ve always known.” But even Monsanto’s own studies showed this to be a lie, and it could be endangering the public. Wilson recounted to me,
“I tried to appeal to his basic sense of why this is news. He responded, ‘Don’t tell me what news is. We paid $2 billion for these television stations and the news is what we say it is. We’ll tell you what the news is.’”
According to Wilson, the manager offered hush money to the two reporters. They would be paid the full amount of what was remaining in their contract, but they were free to go—essentially fired. But there was a catch. They were to agree never to talk about rbGH again—not for any other news organization.
Wilson responded, “I’m never going to agree for any amount of money you offer me to gag myself from revealing in some other time and place what’s going on here.” Wilson told me,
“He looked at us with this blank stare like he’d never heard such a thing. And he said, ‘I don’t get it. What’s with you people? I just want people who want to be on TV. . . . I’ve never met any people like you before.’ He just offered us 6 figures and to him what we were being asked to do in exchange was no big deal. Why in the world would we turn it down? And lose a chance to continue to be on TV—as if that is such a big deal that one would sell one’s soul to continue to do it.”
The reporters offered to re-write the show to make it more palatable, but with each draft, Fox attorneys instructed them to make it more favorable to Monsanto. Over the next 6 months, they re-wrote the script 83 times.
Akre and Wilson “were repeatedly instructed to include unverified and even some outright false statements by Monsanto’s dairy research director.” For example, they were told to include a statement that milk from rbGH-injected cows is the same and as safe as milk from untreated cows. The reporters said that management even threatened to fire them if the statement was not included.
Akre told me, “We knew it was a lie. Monsanto’s own study showed it was a lie. Yet we were told to leave that statement in without refutation, even though we had contrary evidence. That’s falsifying the news.”
When they showed the evidence to Fox’s lawyer that Monsanto’s claims were false, according to Wilson she replied, “You guys don’t get it—it isn’t about whether you have your facts right or whether it’s true. It’s the fact that we don’t want to put up $200,000 to go up against Monsanto.”
Fox suspended the two for “insubordination,” then fired them altogether.
TV News Goes to Court
Akre and Wilson sued the Fox station. They based their case on Florida whistle-blower laws, which protect employees from retaliation for reporting (or threatening to report) . to a government regulatory agency. employer misconduct, which violates any law, rule or regulation speaking out (or threatening to speak out) against their employer for breaking the law. The jury awarded Akre $425,000, agreeing that her dismissal was retaliation for her threat to tell the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) about the station’s plan to report false information on television.
Fox appealed and the case was overturned. It turns out that lying on TV is not against the law. The FCC’s policy against news distortion is a policy, not a “rule, law, or regulation,” so the Florida’s whistle-blower law did not apply. Furthermore, in a move certain to chill future whistleblowers, the court used the “Non-Prevailing Party Pays” provision of the state’s whistleblower protection act to rule that Akre and Wilson pay nearly $200,000 of Fox’s legal fees.
The reporters have since been the recipients of numerous awards for their ethics and courage, including the Goldman environmental prize, considered the Nobel Prize for the environment. The Fox station eventually ran a neutered report on rbGH that contained Monsanto’s false statement that rbGH milk is unchanged. Fortunately, one of the earlier versions of the original Akre and Wilson series became public domain when it was used as an exhibit in their trial. With their blessing, I extracted footage from their excellent piece for my 18-minute film Your Milk on Drugs—Just Say No!, which is available online Also see Part 1, and Part 2 of this series.
Email Governor Sebelius before April 16, urging her to veto a bill that would require all national dairy brands that label their products as rbGH-free, to also place a false disclaimer, saying that there is no difference in milk from treated and non-treated cows.