Eli Lilly: Integrity, Excellence and … Pinkwashing

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By Kim Irish, BCAction Program Manager

What’s in that ice cream you’re eating? Or the cheese that’s on your sandwich? In fact, what’s in your milk? Ironically it’s not just milk, and that may surprise you. All over the country, we’re being exposed to recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), an artificial growth hormone given to dairy cows to stimulate milk production. All this exposure despite the fact that rBGH has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer.

rBGH also increases the development of mastitis in dairy cows which in turn leads to an increased use of antibiotics which also end up in our milk supply! My biggest beef about all of this (no pun intended)? You won’t find this information on the label of a single dairy product using milk treated with rBGH. We need to get this junk out of our food supply once and for all. rBGH is banned in the European Union, corporate giants like Starbucks refuse to use it, and Wal-Mart won’t put their brand label on dairy products sourced from rBGH cows.

Those in favor of keeping rBGH in in our food chain claim it’s not harmful. Yet the science proves that we have reasons for concern. rBGH increases the production of insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) which circulates in cows’ blood and then enters their milk. Research shows that when it’s present in the human body at elevated levels, IGF-1 increases the risk of breast, colon, prostate and other cancers. In fact, one study indicates that women with the highest fifth of IGF-1 levels have a 28% higher risk of breast cancer than women in the lowest fifth.

There are numerous ways we could address this problem. We’ve tried the individual manufacturer-by-manufacturer approach (see our successful “Yoplait: Put a Lid on It” campaign). But approaching companies one by one takes a lot of time, and meanwhile millions of people are still being exposed to rBGH. It’s time we go straight to the source of the hormone itself.

Eli Lilly is the only company in the world that makes and distributes rBGH (under the drug name Posilac). Our efforts to get rBGH out of the food supply have to focus on them. We must protect everyone’s health, especially vulnerable groups like low-income communities who may not have the choice of whether to buy rBGH-free dairy products and children and pregnant women whose bodies are more susceptible to harmful environmental toxins.

And the more you know about Eli Lilly, the uglier it gets. Eli Lilly makes a lot of money from breast cancer all in the name of improving women’s health outcomes. At Breast Cancer Action we call that pinkwashing! In fact, Eli Lilly has a highly lucrative profit cycle in place that is going to keep making them money as long as breast cancer is around. They manufacture rBGH, which has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, they manufacture Evista to “prevent” breast cancer, and they produce Gemzar to treat the disease. Really? And they proudly assert their core values of “integrity, excellence, and respect for people.” How does manufacturing a growth hormone that may increase a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer demonstrate “integrity”? How does it show “excellence”? How is it a declaration of “respect for people”?

We want Eli Lilly to sign our Pledge to Prevent Pinkwashing and commit to:

  1. Taking all necessary action to ensure that the products they make do not put people at increased risk for breast cancer.
  2. Follow the precautionary principle and stop making rBGH and any other products that are suspected of harming human health.
  3. Never engaging in pinkwashing by producing, selling, or endorsing products in the name of breast cancer that themselves are linked to the disease and put women at increased risk for developing breast cancer.

Help build on the momentum activists have been creating for years through direct corporate campaigning, national education efforts, media attention, and a Milking Cancer video (which was recently featured in the film Pink Ribbons, Inc.).

Demand that Eli Lilly stop making rBGH and sign BCAction’s Pledge to Prevent Pinkwashing.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this page erroneously stated a link between rBGH and obesity and diabetes. We apologize for the error.


  1. Jane Edmondson
    Posted May 14, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    We raised our children in Indianapolis. Eli Lilly Co. was highly thought of and many of our close friends were employed there……We no longer live in Indy, and when I read this….all I can think is … WHAT A SAD COMMENTARY FOR ELI LILLY CO. I have had Breast Cancer and take this very seriously. To imagine that the same ” GIANT” Co. that produces and SELLS Cancer Fighting Drugs, ( at unbelievable prices ), is ALSO, the SAME Giant Co. and the sole manufacturer of rBGH, the artificial growth hormone that’s linked to Breast Cancer. Yes, I do believe that Eli Lilly is actually …”milking Cancer.”

  2. Posted May 15, 2012 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    Wow…Thanks so much for all you do. I am signing this and posting to my facebook too. I had breast cancer in 2007 and my sister passed away from it 🙁

  3. Laurie Johnson
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    First, I am against the use of rBGH in dairy cows, because of the added stress on the animals and the antibiotic issue. I believe that we have the right to know if dairy products have been produced using rBGH. However, as a biologist I feel that this article leaps to conclusions about a “link” between rBGH and cancer that has not, in fact, been shown. It is unfortunate that Ms. Irish did not include references to back up her comments. In doing some research on the topic after reading this, it seems that the one study that showed increased levels of IGF-1 in humans after consuming milk did not even determine whether or not the milk consumed was from rBGH cows!
    Other studies of the levels of IGF-1 in milk indicate that the levels of this hormone in milk from rGBH-treated cows is within the normal range of natural variation, as this hormone varies depending on the age, lactation status, etc. of the cow. Even if levels of IGF-1 were significantly higher in rGBH milk, the levels in milk are about 1/1000 of to the level naturally in our bodies. You would have to drink a heck of a lot of milk for that to increase our blood levels of the hormone.
    Again, I am no shill for the dairy or chemical industries. I am a mom and an informed consumer, but I’m also a scientist, and it really bugs me when I read or hear that “science proves” something or other when that is not the case. Just as we need to be skeptical of the claims of business and industry, we need to look critically at accusations against those industries.

  4. caitlin
    Posted May 15, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Hi Laurie, thanks for your comment. rBGH has been shown to raise IGF-1 levels in cows (European Commission. Report on Public Health Aspects of the Use of Bovine Somatotrophin. Food Safety—From the Farm to the Fork. March 15-16, 1999, and Prosser C.G., et al. Increased secretion of insulin-like growth factor 1 into milk of cows treated with recombinantly derived bovine growth hormone. Journal of Dairy Research 56 (1) 17-26, 1989.) We referred to this recent study (The Endogenous Hormones and Breast Cancer Collaborative Group, 2010. “Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1), IGF binding protein 3 (IGFBP3), and breast cancer risk: pooled individual data analysis of 17 prospective studies.” Lancet Oncol May 17, 2010; 11: 530-42) when writing this blog post, which showed a higher concentration of IGF-1 levels associated with a higher risk of breast cancer in women. Breast Cancer Action follows the precautionary principle of public health and advocates for prevention through precaution. We believe that when it comes to our health we must adopt the highest standards, and act now to eliminate exposure to substances like rBGH, where there is enough evidence to show a connection to increased risk of breast cancer.

  5. Posted May 21, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Laurie, I’ve become weary of the opinion that we must prove harm before taking corrective action. Statistics are scientific sport.

    I would prefer we take the stance that we must prove harmlessness before putting something on the market. Granted, some effects are not known for years, even generations, but I’d like to see us take some measures up front.

    There is a certain wisdom in nature that manifests in rhythms and limits. When we force nature beyond her limits it always backfires, as is the case of stimulating dairy cows beyond what nature intended. I feel that way about all Frankenfoods.

  6. Sharyn Flint
    Posted June 19, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

    Wow! I was sent to this link because I promoted the site with the free clicks for mamograms. I personally don’t trust any pharmacuticals and I have never had a mamogram. I don’t know if the sites that try to raise money are worthy charities. I will share the awareness of this site but I wonder if milk laced with growth hormone is the only culprit in the onslaught of increased breast cancer. I think corporations have been poisoning us for years with many chemicals. I use milk substitutes as much as possible and avoid the meat also. Atta boy for Walmart at least the majority of the poor in the USA will not be drinking milk laced with the hormones. I think I will still promote free mamograms for those who suspect problems and need the only diagnostic tool the medical industry has made readily available. I lost a best friend to complications post breast cancer survival so this issue hits home. I personally think deoderants are also another area to study more. Patroleum based products are another aspect I research before buying and it makes me ill that Johnson & Johnson baby products fall in that category. Greed and lack of ethics is the root of our problems.

  7. Anatol
    Posted August 31, 2012 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    not only milk… but almost all processed foods… and some major crops… are already contaminated with Monsanto’s GMOs… for your own safety … you can do what i do… stay away from all animal, processed and GMO crops… i do my best to eat only organic… fresh, unprocessed plant based diet… vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts & seeds… with emphasis on GREENS… especially KALE… which has most micro-nutrients… GOOD LUCK… and once in a while organic whole… millet, quinoa, oatmeal, rice…

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