Satire can be a fun way to express the contradictions, controversies, and disturbing intricacies of our political culture. I consider myself to be fan of satire, and The Simpsons one among my favorite cartoons poking fun at contemporary issues. However, their most recent episode “Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles” (aired 1/10/2016) left me uneasy. Based loosely on the effects of hormones in general, the episode honed in on how “Buzz Milk” affected the lives of the Simpson kids. Bovine growth hormone and industrial agriculture claimed center stage, and I fear how the satire may have been received in the real world given the already overgeneralized knowledge circulated on these subjects.
To provide a little more context, the episode begins with Homer buying a carton of milk from the Kwik-E-Mart. Initially he buys what Marge requested: a “healthy” carton of “Top of the Teat” organic milk. Shocked to find the milk cost $16.00, Apu persuades Homer to buy a cheaper variation based on “Science.” Insert bovine growth hormone (rbST), and over-exaggerated industrial ag representation here.
The representation is uncanny to the “Down of the Farm” Video by PETA, which illustrates over-exaggerated industrial agriculture imagery. PETA’s video is meant to be informational, not satire. Photo credits: Fox on Hulu.com, PETA Videos.
Much of the animation in the episode focuses on the Simpson family consuming said milk. There is careful attention to Bart sipping the milk from his glass, Lisa pouring it into her bowl, and Maggie swishing it around in her sippie-cup. Throughout the episode the audience witnesses that the milk comes with various side effects. Bart grows a mustache, Lisa inherits pimples, and Maggie dons a pair of shaggy eyebrows and super strength. Though it is suggested in the episode that the regular hormones associated with puberty are partially to blame for these effects, Marge concludes that these changes are because of the milk. The animators take time to frame Marge frantically taking the milk away from her children to pour it down the drain. Meanwhile, Homer calls the number on the “Buzz Milk” carton for a “refund,” with the audience shown that the call is transferred to a prison cell.
Photo credits: Fox on Hulu.com.
The use of synthetic bovine growth hormone to increase milk production in cattle has been controversial since trial testing of the product in the early 1980s. I have been reading about this topic closely for the past three years, as well as talking with farmers, veterinarians, and promoters of the product, known as Posilac and now marketed by Eli Lilly and Company (formerly, Monsanto). To me, the product continues to be controversial because scientifically it is complicated to describe how it works. It doesn’t help that publicly in the past certain hormones were shown to have negative side-effects on humans. This is most apparent in the case of DES, the synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol. After its synthesis in the 1930s, DES was pushed politically during the second World War for FDA approval to use in livestock and poultry. The hormone was suspected to be harmful for humans when consumed, which was shown to be true in Canadian research showing changes in vaginal smears of women consuming it, and the case of a man who grew breasts after ingesting the pellets. DES created public outrage by the 60s and 70s in its use by industrial agriculture, but remained approved and regulated by the FDA (it is now used solely for veterinary use) on the grounds that there was not enough evidence to present a case in its complete ban (see Langston 2011).
Residues of the DES controversy certainly affected public morale of “Science” during the rbST experimental trails and later approval hearings. But the difference in both bovine growth hormone and its synthetic variation from DES is that it has been proven again and again that it does not affect humans in any way. This was even confirmed by Health Canada during their debates on rbST, the same group that found disparities in their research during the DES controversies. The biggest issue with rbST was actually how the hormone seemed to affect the cows themselves. Animals given it were more susceptible to mastitis, an infection that can occur in the mammary system causing swelling and pus** in the milk.
When rbST was up for approval by the FDA, the majority of the debate against the product was the possibility that pus from mastitis and the antibiotics used to treat the condition would leach into the milk and into the larger milk food system. These worries formed the basis of Canada’s ban of the product – which was on the grounds of animal welfare. The document explaining the decision reiterated that rbST was shown not to effect humans. The United States differed in their decision from Canada as the hearing members believed their animals and food system would not be at risk. With the management of America’s “good” farmers, mastitis was not a significant risk for cattle, with pus and antibiotics not a significant risk to the food system. Considering how milk is collected, diluted, and processed from farm to table – this decision made sense in 1993, and continues to make sense for politicians, scientists, and farmers now.
However, to some public figures this explanation and the science behind it remain unconvincing. Samuel Epstein is one of a few academics who has published books on the dangers of rbST as a carcinogen, fearing the possibility of elevated IGF-I production in human bodies through ingesting milk produced with the hormone. Companies like Ben and Jerry’s made pledges since the 1993 rbST approval to only source milk for their products from non-rbST treated animals. And politicians like Bernie Sanders have advocated against rbST on the grounds of protecting small farmers economically (though, from my research in 2013, I found most of the farmers using the product were in fact small farmers – including Amish – at least on the East Coast).
rbST was thought to benefit cows, farmers, and the environment with its production and use. With higher lactation rates, promoters described farms with fewer animals, meaning less feed waste and methane gas emissions. They also described longer lactation cycles and less stress on the animal overall. I have even heard of farmers using rbST to treat different ailments in their cattle. It is used with close consideration to overall animal performance and potential, with very few animals in relation to the entire milking barn being treated with it at the same time.
As of this past year, bovine growth hormone on the East Coast has been phased out with pledges made by larger dairy distributors not to sell milk sourced by animals treated with rbST. This new shift has been largely consumer driven – a great triumph for those who were left uneasy about the product, but a great set-back for scientists promoting solutions to larger, agricultural problems. Though The Simpsons’ work touches on the issue satirically, it perpetuates a monolithic view of milk production using rbST – one that is a great misunderstanding of the product and its controversy. It wouldn’t produce the mutations illustrated in the cartoon, and this was never a factor to consider during its debate. One could argue these fears were the very ideas the episode was trying to poke fun at on Sunday, but an everyday consumer separated from agricultural production and the initial controversies of rbST may view this as the “truth” about cheap dairy products. But in fact, there is a lot to the story of bovine growth hormone that is overlooked, forgotten, or ignored based on preconceptions.
**I use the word “pus” to describe the concentration of white blood cells in milk that occurs with infection. It should be noted that this was how mastitis was described during the approval hearings in 1993 mainly by groups against bST approval. It continues to be a word of contention between dairy producers as they feel it does not adequately reflect the condition of mastitis. It also can produce unnecessary disgust, for even if this milk was processed this material would not be consumed by the public.
Bauman, D. E. “Bovine Somatotropin and Lactation: From Basic Science to Commercial Application.” Domestic Animal Endocrinology 17, no. 2–3 (October 1999): 101–16. doi:10.1016/S0739-7240(99)00028-4.
Collier, R. J., and D. E. Bauman. “Update on Human Health Concerns of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin Use in Dairy Cows.” Journal of Animal Science 92, no. 4 (April 2014): 1800–1807. doi:10.2527/jas.2013-7383.
Langston, Nancy. Toxic Bodies: Hormone Disruptors and the Legacy of DES. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011.