This year's World Hand-Milking Championship was not just a joyous afternoon of vigorous nipple-squeezing, nor a quaint assembly of proud, smiling farmers eager to showcase their proclivity for bovine efficiency. Despite the creamy white liquid filling buckets at the Branzi fair in Lenna, Italy, this year's competition had a decidedly dark side.
As the Tour de France of cow-milking, the competition (this year, 43 milkers strong) is allegedly rife with doping—using performance-enhancing drugs to provoke excessive milk production. One highly suspicious element was that this year's champion, Gianmario Ghirardi, was able to produce 8.7 liters of milk in just two minutes; the former Guinness World Record, established under those same time constraints in 2008, was just two liters. Despite the major jump from 2008's record, the runners-up were relatively close. Second and third places went to Nicolo Quarteroni, with 8.05 liters, and Pierangelo Rota, with 7.97, indicating that if doping is taking place, it's common among the competitors. Ghirardi insisted that his cow, Mirka, was the one who should be accredited for her astounding yield.
The flames of the controversy were fanned when last year's champion, Maurizio Paschetta, refused to re-enroll in the competition due to his lack of belief in its validity. (Two years ago, Paschetta milked about four and a half liters for the top title.) Despite the judges' insistence that they inspected the cows for "tampering," Paschetta commented to La Repubblica, "For a competition at this level, I would have expected strong anti-doping checks on the cows and milkers to protect the animals and guarantee transparency of the top positions … The event could be a showcase for the agricultural world and its traditions, but this has been neglected in the organization."
The doping that Paschetta is referring to would likely be recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone, or rBGH. Though the hormone is naturally produced by cow's pituitary glands, a potent synthetic version is popularly used in some areas of the world to stimulate increased milk production. Manufactured by Monsanto and other large pharmaceutical companies, rBGH (also known as rBST) is FDA-approved in the US but banned for commercial use in Argentina, Australia, Canada, the European Union, New Zealand, and Japan, among other nations. A 1999 European Union report on its usage cited its association with numerous health and welfare issues, included mastitis (infected udders), lameness, and "unnecessary pain, suffering, and distress." Needless to say, its implementation in the World Hand-Milking Championship would be controversial.
Although many of the contestants were from Italy, some hailed from Switzerland, Romania, and India—only to find the sanctity of the contest, and all that it stands for, thoroughly compromised. Is Ghirardi the Lance Armstrong of the cow-milking world? Only time will tell when a more effective system is enacted for ascertaining the ethics of this cutthroat competition.
Watch the milkers in question below as they squeeze those nipples like there's no tomorrow.