What is rBGH?
Bovine somatotropin (BST) is a hormone produced in cattle that is also referred to as bovine growth hormone (BGH). The terms rBGH and rBST refer to an artificial version of the hormone that is currently produced and sold exclusively by Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly.
In 1937, the administration of BST was shown to increase the milk yield in lactating cows by preventing mammary cell death in dairy cattle. Until the 1980s, there was very limited use of the compound in agriculture as the sole source of the hormone was from bovine cadavers. During this time, the knowledge of the structure and function of the hormone increased. Monsanto developed a recombinant version of BST, brand-named Posilac, in 1994, which is produced through a genetically engineered E. coli. A gene that codes for the sequence of amino acids that make up BST is inserted into the DNA of the E. coli bacterium. The bacteria are then broken up and separated from the rBST, which, then, is purified to produce the injectable hormone. Growth hormones associated with injections given to dairy cows to increase milk production are known under an assortment of terms, but these terms, in general, refer to the Monsanto product. The Monsanto fact sheet on its proprietary product states that, when injected into dairy cattle, the product can increase milk production by an average of more than 10% over the span of 300 days.Eli Lilly/Elanco acquired the rights to Posilac from Monsanto in 2008. Elanco claims that "of the nearly 9 million dairy cows in the United States, approximately one-third are in herds supplemented with Posilac." Posilac has been FDA approved since 1994, and Elanco maintains that the artificial growth hormone works exactly the same way as BGH that is naturally produced and that it is safe both for the cows and for the people who drink milk that comes from them.
What are the concerns about rBGH?
rBGH may be FDA approved, but that doesn't mean that there are no concerns about potential health risks associated with its use. Here's a roundup of some of questions that have been raised with links to further information.
~The use of rBGH stimulates the production of another hormone called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a naturally occurring hormone in both cows and humans that regulates cell growth, division, and differentiation. 1 2
Cow’s milk that is treated with rBGH has higher levels of IGF-1. Studies in humans, animals, and cell cultures have indicated that elevated levels of IGF-1 in humans may increase the risk of breast cancer. 3 4 5
In addition to breast cancer, increased IGF-1 levels have been associated with prostate, colon, and other cancers.6 The use of rBGH also increases the need for antibiotics in cows, which can lead to increased antibiotic resistance in humans.7
There is controversy about whether or not the IGF-1 in milk makes its way into the human bloodstream. Some studies have indicated that IGF-1 does survive digestion while others have not. 8 What is clear is that there is sufficient evidence for concern about the human health impacts of using rBGH. [Breast Cancer Action]
~In cows treated with rBGH, significant health problems often develop, including a 50 percent increase in the risk of lameness (leg and hoof problems), over a 25 percent increase in the frequency of udder infections (mastitis), and serious animal reproductive problems, i.e., infertility, cystic ovaries, fetal loss and birth defects.
Because rBGH use results in more cases of mastitis, dairy farmers tend to use more antibiotics to combat the infections, the residues of which also may end up in milk and dairy products. These residues can cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals and contribute to the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria, further undermining the efficacy of some antibiotics in fighting human infections.
Furthermore, recent research has shown conclusively that the levels of a hormone called "insulin-like growth factor-1" (IFG-1) are elevated in dairy products produced from cows treated with rBGH. Canadian and European regulators have found that the FDA completely failed to consider a study that showed how the increased IGF-1 in rBGH milk could survive digestion and make its way into the intestines and blood stream of consumers. These findings are significant because numerous studies now demonstrate that IGF-1 is an important factor in the growth of cancers of the breast, prostate and colon. [The Center for Food Safety]
~Food & Water Watch has a roundup called rBGH: What the Research Shows that touches on a variety of studies about rBGH and IGF-1 and their potential connections to a variety of human and animal health issues.
~Back in 1997, Consumers Union (the publisher of Consumer Reports) prepared a paper called Potential Public Health Impacts Of The Use Of Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin In Dairy Production for review by the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives. It summarizes the studies on rBGH that were done by Monsanto and Elanco and examines the evidence of potential health risks of high IGF-1 levels in milk.
~The Oregon chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility has a long list of rBGH information and resources, including fact sheets, position statements from medical organizations, and action alerts.
~The Organic Consumers Association also has rBGH action alerts, as well as a list of past consumer victories and a long list of links to related blog posts and news stories.
~Our Bodies, Ourselves has a section on rBGH in their Health Resource Center. It includes a fact sheet from the Women's Community Cancer Project and an open letter from Judy Norsigian of OBOS and other women's health activists.
~The FDA's approval of rBGH is somewhat unique as its use is banned in many other countries, including Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, and all countries in the European Union. In addition, "the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a United Nations body that sets international food standards, has to date refused to approve rBST as safe. The Codex Alimentarius does not have authority to ban or approve the hormone - but its decisions are regarded as a standard and approval by the Codex would have allowed exporting countries to challenge countries with a ban on rBGH before the WTO."
How Can You Tell If A Product Has rBGH?
Most dairy products that do contain rBGH will not say so on the label because it's not currently required by the FDA. Products that do not contain rBGH usually do indicate that on the label. There has been some controversy over these labeling issues.
The FDA does not require special labels for products produced from cows given rBST but has charged several dairies with "misbranding" their milk as having no hormones, because all milk contains hormones and cannot be produced in such a way that it would not contain any hormones. Monsanto sued Oakhurst Dairy of Maine over their use of a label which pledged to not use artificial growth hormones. The dairy stated that their disagreement was not over the scientific evidence for the safety of rBST (Monsanto's complaint about the label), but "We're in the business of marketing milk, not Monsanto's drugs." The suit was settled when the dairy agreed to add a qualifying statement to their label: "FDA states: No significant difference in milk from cows treated with artificial growth hormones." The FDA recommends this additional labeling but does not require it. The settlement itself caused much controversy, with anti-rBST advocates claiming that Oakhurst had capitulated in response to intimidation by a larger corporation and others claiming that Oakhurst's milk labels were in and of themselves using misleading scare tactics that deserved legal and legislative response. [Wikipedia. Emphasis mine.]I've seen this "no significant difference" disclaimer on several different brands of milk. It can be a little confusing when you see a label that states that the product does not come from cows treated with rBGH, but then goes on to say that the FDA says there's no difference anyway. What's important is that the part of the label that says there's no rBGH; the disclaimer is just lawsuit prevention.
Here are some tips and resources if you are in the market for rBGH-free dairy products:
- Organic milk is rBGH free.
- The Organic Consumers Association has a list of Top rBGH-Free Processors.
- Food & Water Watch has an rBGH-free Dairy Guide that includes state by state and national lists of artificial hormone-free brands of milk and other dairy products.
- The Sierra Club has a list of Sources for Non-rBGH Cheese.
- Physicians for Social Responsibility has a Consumers Guide to rBGH-Free Dairy Products, as well as charts by product category and other resources. A Spanish version of the guide is also available.
- Many companies have already pledged that the products they manufacture, sell, or serve are rBGH-free. The list includes Ben & Jerry's, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and Sam's Club, Publix, Safeway, Kroger, Costco, Chipotle, Yoplait and Dannon, Subway, and more. So you can check the brands that you buy most often to see where they stand.
How is Eli Lilly "milking cancer"?
Breast Cancer Action calls this a "milking cancer" campaign because they argue that Eli Lilly is profiting from cancer on multiple fronts.
Eli Lilly has taken pinkwashing to a whole new level. By adding rBGH to the products they sell, Eli Lilly has completed its cancer profit circle: it creates cancer with rBGH, it sells cancer treatment drugs like Gemzar, and it sells a drug, Evista, to reduce the risk of breast cancer in women at high risk of the disease. Eli Lilly’s cancer drugs made $2,683,000,000 for the company in 2008. Its potentially carcinogenic dairy hormone made millions of dollars in the same year. Eli Lilly is milking cancer.To be clear, while there is evidence to suggest a potential link between rBGH and cancer, it's difficult to definitively state that it "causes" cancer. But there is cause for concern.
Of course, Eli Lilly doesn't see it that way. Their response to concerns about rBGH is basically to pretend that they don't exist...even if they have to 'manufacture' a little support to make their case.
At a Montreal animal science meeting in July 2009, Eli Lilly’s Elanco division sponsored a press release masquerading as a scientific paper that concluded — surprise, surprise — that bovine growth hormone is perfectly safe for cows and humans. Tucked into page two of the eleven-page Q&A document is a claim that “more than 20 leading health organizations in the United States” have endorsed the safety of the synthetic hormone, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association.As BNET points out, by that standard there are a whole lot of people out there who "endorse" rBGH because they've never specifically said that they oppose it. Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, the Dallas Cowboys, Dora the Explorer...all big rBGH endorsers.
The fact that none of these three groups have ever come close to singing the praises of bovine growth hormone — known variously as rBST or rBGH — went unnoticed until last month when a biotech watchdog called the Bioscience Resource Project got wind of the report and started making a few calls. A spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatricians told the group that the AAP “does not endorse the safety of rBGH.” Ditto for the ACA and AMA.
It turns out that the eight so-called medical and dairy science experts who were paid to write the paper for Eli Lilly came up with a very creative interpretation of the word “endorsement.” One of the authors admitted to the Bioscience Resource Project that the endorsements are “technically untrue.”“We counted endorsement as failure to oppose rBGH”, said David Clemmons, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and a paid consultant for Eli Lilly. [BNET]
Another thing to consider is that both Monsanto and Eli Lilly have been accused of questionable and/or unethical business practices in the past. Here's a quick link roundup:
- Monsanto's Corporate Watch profile
- Millions Against Monsanto from the Organic Consumers Association
- Planting of Monsanto Modified Sugar Beets is Banned
- Gates Foundation ties with Monsanto under fire from activists
- The Case for Giving Eli Lilly the Corporate Death Penalty
- Lab used by Lilly, peers accused of animal cruelty
- Lilly Halts Alzheimer’s Drug Trial
- Eli Lilly controversies has its own Wikipedia page
- Sign Breast Cancer Action's petition asking Eli Lilly to stop selling rBGH. Their goal is to collect 6220 signatures - one for every day that Posilac has been on the market - by September 24th.
- Follow Breast Cancer Action on Twitter and Facebook to stay updated on the campaign. And if you decide to tweet about the campaign, add the #milkingcancer hashtag.
- Do your research, then check your milk and other dairy products. If you decide to make a switch to an rBGH-free brand, contact both companies and tell them why you switched.
- Hey look, Monsanto and Eli Lilly are both up for Worst of 2010 in Corporate Accountability International's Corporate Hall of Shame. Go vote!
- It looks like Eli Lilly has just decided that it's a good idea to launch a "social media footprint". They've launched a blog called LillyPad and started a Twitter account. Feel free to show them that social media is a two way street.