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They've Got A Beef With Milk

The smiling celebrities hyping milk in dairy industry ads may be pitching deceptive information about a potentially harmful product, according to a physicians' advocacy group.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine will ask the Federal Trade Commission Wednesday to investigate the advertising campaign by the National Fluid Milk Processor Promotion Program, which features prominent celebrities in ads asking "Got Milk?"

In a Tuesday press release, the committee said the cheery posters of famous folks sporting milk moustaches may represent "scientifically unsubstantiated, purposefully deceptive, and harmful advertising."

The ads, in circulation since 1994, have featured celebrities ranging from glam-rock band KISS—who urged kids to "lick it up"—to perky actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, who proclaimed: "What does Jennifer Love hate? Osteoporosis."

The physicians' group specifically slams recent ads featuring Britney Spears and Marc Anthony.

By telling girls to get four glasses of milk a day, the committee says, Spears is asking her teeny-bopping fans to "add up to 33 grams of fat, including 20 grams of heart-clogging saturated fat" to their diets.

And by telling Latinos that milk lowers the risk of osteoporosis, the group says Marc Anthony is overstating milk's benefits and ignoring the fact that lactose intoerance—an inability to digest milk products that can lead to painful digestive problems—affects most Latinos.

The group's claims, of course, run contrary to what the dairy industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture argue.

The national promotion program was authorized by a 1990 act of Congress and funded by a surcharge on milk sales.

The campaign argues on its Web site that, "to grow strong bones and help keep them that way, you should keep milk as an integral part of your daily diet."

And in its 2000 edition of the food pyramid, the USDA says everyone needs to drink two to three glasses of milk every day.

But the physician's group says those claims are based on bad science.

"Britney's ad might as well be captioned, 'Oops, I did it again -- sold out for an unhealthy product,'" said PCRM president Neal D. Barnard, M.D. in a written statement. "The dairy industry continues to whitewash the dangers of cow's milk."

The group claims that milk's benefits are greatly exaggerated, citing a recent Harvard Nurse Health Study finding little evidence of a connection between drinking milk and preventing the bone disease osteoporosis.

"Dairy products offer a false sense of security to those concerned about osteoporosis. In countries where dairy products are not generally consumed, there is actually less osteoporosis than in the United Staes," says the group.

Cow's milk is bad for infants, and milk fat and cholesterol can contribute to heart disease, the committee argues. In addition, milk often does not contain the nutrients its labels claim—"Recent testing of 42 milk samples found only 12 percent within the expected range of vitamin D content," says PCRM.

In addition, the group cites possible links between milk consumption with conditions like diabetes, prostate and ovarian cancer. It contends that cow's milk not be recommended by government programs like food stamps.

Some independent studies support parts of their arguments.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has found that "Infants fed (whole cow's milk) have low intakes of iron, linoleic acid, and vitamin E, and excessive intakes of sodium, potassium, and protein."

And according to the National Institutes of Health, 30 million to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, with up to 75 percent of blacks and Native Americans, and 90 percent of Asian-Americans unable to digest the sugars in milk.

However, the industry campaign says the lactose intolerant "can probably still drink milk, but should consult (their) doctor to find out more about incorporating milk into my diet."

The NIH recommends that "Young children with lactase deficiency should not eat any foods containing lactose," and that older children and adults can take small doses of milk or use lactase enzyme pills of lactose-free dairy products.

If the FTC responds to the physicians' committee petition, it won't be the first time it has taken a closer look at milk.

In the late 1990s, the commission studied milk labeling, finding in 1997 that only 55 percent of milk inspected was labeled with the proper nutritional information. That rate jumped to 81 percent in 1998.

A 1973 consent agreement between the dairy industry and the FTC prevented the industry from claiming that whole milk is low in fat or calories. It settled FTC charges that "the association falsely implied that drinking whole milk would benefit persons on calorie-restricted or fat-restricted diets."