Milk is a healthy beverage right? We've been told to "drink your milk" since we were old enough to hold the sippy cup. A quick look at the GotMilk website here will show you that they are even touting milk as a way to help PMS (Pre-Menstrual Syndrome). They go so far as to call milk, "The perfect comfort food." If you're of a certain age you may remember when milk was delivered by the milkman to the front door of your house and it actually was healthy. However, things have changed a lot since then and not all milk is created equal.
It all started back in the early 1980's with research for a drug that would increase the production of milk in cows. Monsanto Company eventually received Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for their drug Posilac. It's what is known as a genetically engineered hormone called recombinant bovine growth hormone, or rBGH. In 2008, Eli Lilly acquired the Posilac branch of Monsanto's business. Eli Lilly also manufactures breast cancer treatment drugs. So, what's the big deal? Well, the plot thickens.
There are potential health issues associated with the use of rBGH. To underscore this point, several countries including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and the European Union recognize rBGH as a big enough health threat that they have banned it and any products containing it. Animal and food safety activists in the US have been voicing their concerns for years as well. Thankfully, some grocery stores, dairies and companies that utlize milk in their products are no longer using rBGH milk. You can view a list here compiled by Food and Water Watch.org.
So, just what are these potential health issues? Well, one concern is that the hormone causes mastitis in the udders of cows. The mastitis then requires antibiotics - strong antibiotics. In some cases, antibiotics are regularly used to prevent mastitis before it even occurs. The prolific use of antibiotics is thought to be one cause of the increasing numbers of antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria we're seeing. That by itself is bad enough. However, the story doesn't end here.
The presence of rBGH in the cow's blood stimulates production of another hormone that is normally present in cow's milk, called Insulin-Like Growth Factor-1 (IGF-1). A side effect of the use of rBGH is that it causes IGF-1 levels to rise significantly above normal. According to one study, rBGH caused the normal levels of IGF-1 in cow's milk to increase by "sixfold", and recent information released by Eli Lilly to the European Community Committee for Veterinary Medicinal Products admitted increases of ten times the normal IGF-1.
Why is this a problem? When we drink milk containing normal levels of IGF-1, the hormone usually binds with proteins whose job is to keep the biological activity of IGF-1 in check. However, when levels of IGF-1 are significantly increased, as they are in rBGH cow's milk, it's thought that this leads to unbound IGF-1 circulating in the body. It's a known fact that IGF-1 causes cells to divide and that unregulated cell division leads to cancer. The concern many experts have is that rBGH, and the resulting increased levels of unbound IGF-1 in our circulation, are contributing factors to the increases seen in a variety of cancers, including breast, colon, lung and prostate.
So, that's the connection. A drug company that offers breast cancer treatment drugs is also responsible for a drug that may cause breast cancer. I find this appalling! Like me, you might be wondering where the FDA is in this story. If you'd like, you can read an updated 2009 statement from them here, and get their side of the story. It's difficult for me to understand how other countries can see the wisdom in banning the use of this drug, but the US cannot. Having said that, the cynic in me can recall many similar situations where a big industry with deep pockets was able to fly under the radar for years.
If you're feeling moved to activism, Breast Cancer Action has composed a petition to Eli Lilly requesting that they stop making rBGH. You can link to it here. It really is an inexcusable conflict of interest when a company sells a drug that ultimately may contribute to breast cancer and also sells drugs for breast cancer treatments.
The good news is that there is a movement for labeling non rBGH cow's milk and other dairy products so that consumers can identify and choose products that don't use this growth hormone. The bigger picture is that this fight isn't just about dairy products. It's about all foods that are being genetically modified or altered. Don't you think we should have a right to know what we're eating? That healthy milk delivered by the milkman is still available today. It's just our responsibility to make sure that we can choose for ourselves which milk we deem healthiest.
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