Eli Lilly's Desperate, Deceptive Campaign to Boost Bovine Growth Hormone

Last Updated Mar 16, 2010 10:26 AM EDT

With sales and public perception of bovine growth hormone dropping fast in the U.S., it's not easy to find reputable scientific organizations willing to endorse such a controversial genetically modified additive. So, in a shameless and desperate maneuver, Eli Lilly (LLY) decided to make some up.

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.

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.

By this twisted standard, as Michael Hansen of Consumers Union points out, the Federal Reserve and the American Automobile Association are also big supporters of bovine growth hormone. Hell, BNET endorses it.

Eli Lilly certainly doesn't have any easy job trying to lift the fortunes of bovine growth hormone. More than half of the nation's 100 largest dairies have completely or partially discontinued the use of rBGH, including the largest, Dean Foods (DF). Starbucks (SBUX) and Chipotle (CMG) have gone completely rBGH-free and Walmart (WMT) and Kroger (KR) have banned it from their store brand milk. That doesn't leave too many buyers. The most recent USDA statistics, which are as of January 2007, show that only 17 percent of dairy cows are being treated with bovine growth hormone, down from 22 percent in 2002. Oh, and the product is banned in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most of Europe.

Eli Lilly's Elanco bought rBGH from a grateful Monsanto (MON) in 2008 for $300 million with the idea that dairy farmers in developing countries represent a huge market opportunity. And maybe other countries will embrace bovine growth hormone as "an efficient food practice that will help feed the world," as Eli Lilly puts it. But here in the U.S., that ship has already sailed, no matter how many phony endorsements the company cooks up.

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