April 17, 2009

Inventors Sue Cornell For Faulty Dairy Research

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A pair of inventors who developed a new machine for milking cows have filed a lawsuit against Cornell for allegedly slandering their product.
Cornell studied the inventors’ milking system, called CoPulsation, in the 1990s and found that it was no more effective at reducing infections in cows than conventional systems were. The inventors say, however, that the University is lying about the study’s results for financial reasons.
Lanny Gehm and his son, Bill Gehm ’83, invented CoPulsation, claiming that it reduces infections, called mastitis, in a cow’s udder. Mastitis is an important problem for the dairy industry because it can significantly reduce a cow’s milk production, make the milk unsuitable to sell or even cause the cow to die.
New infections with CoPulsation are approximately one sixteenth the rate of infections with conventional milking machines, according to Bill.
However, Cornell’s researchers disagree. The differences they found between CoPulsation and conventional machines “apparently have little effect on milking and udder health,” according to their study.
“The bottom line is the CoPulsation system is no better and no worse than any other unit,” said Lee Southwick, a retired staff member of Cornell’s Quality Milk Production Services, who was involved in the study.
But Cornell has a financial interest in putting CoPulsation out of business, Bill said. The University receives income from some farmers who are required to test their cows for infections. It would lose money if the rate of infections decreased and fewer farmers had to pay Cornell for testing, Bill said.
“Cornell wants us out of the business because we’re in competition with what they’re trying to do,” he said.
The Gehms claim that, despite the study’s conclusion that CoPulsation is not more effective than conventional machines, the data actually indicate that CoPulsation successfully reduces the rate of mastitis. The study shows that 31 percent of cows milked with a conventional machine developed staphylococcus aureus (a particular type of infection), while only 2 percent of cows milked with CoPulsation developed the same kind of infection.
While there was a difference in the rate of staphylococcus aureus, differences in the overall rate of infection were not statistically significant, according to the study.
By suing Cornell for libel and slander, Bill hopes to stop the University from disparaging CoPulsation and to recover monetary losses from lack of sales, he said.
The study was published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2000, but “Cornell has continued to disparage the product,” Bill said. “They have continued to lie about the results.”
Associate University Counsel Valerie Cross Dorn, who is representing Cornell in the lawsuit, declined to comment because the litigation is pending.
The Gehms also created a website, www.cornelldairyresearch.com, “to let people know what’s going on,” Lanny said. He wants farmers and the public to know about CoPulsation’s effectiveness, he said.
Bill and Lanny argue that Cornell’s study has several flaws.
According to the study, five of the cows milked with CoPulsation had staphylococcus aureus when the study began. No cows milked conventionally had the infection. Since mastitis can be contagious, Bill said that this difference was an important flaw.
The data “was biased against us in the beginning,” he said. “The cows [with an infection] probably shouldn’t even have been put in the study.”
Prof. Charles Guard, population medicine and diagnostic sciences, who was involved in the study, did not believe this difference influenced the study’s results.
“We blocked cows based on the stage of lactation,” he said. “We worked pretty hard at randomization.”
Also, the CoPulsation system was not installed correctly during the study, Lanny said. The machine was intended to be used in a parlor-style facility — one where cows walk in just for milking, Bill said. Instead, it was installed in an around-the-barn pipeline, according to Guard.
The system was “not designed to be installed in that facility,” Bill said.
Neither Guard nor Southwick said that they thought this different type of facility affected CoPulsation’s performance. When the researchers installed the system, “we did what the instructions were,” Southwick said.
Researchers decided to study CoPulsation because “there were a lot of questions and controversy about it,” Southwick said.
As the researchers came closer to actually conducting the study, the Gehms became increasingly less cooperative and enthusiastic, Guard said. The Gehms eventually became hostile toward the researchers before the study even began, he said.
“When it was actually getting ready to go, they got nasty,” Guard said. “I don’t know why.”
“They approached me on doing the study,” Bill responded.
However, after seeing that the study was structured in a way to make CoPulsation look bad, “it was my decision that I did not want to participate,” he said.
Despite the CoPulsation study, “I still have a lot of respect for Cornell,” Lanny said.