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BREAST CANCER, RBGH AND MILK

The latest study of IGF-1 and cancer, reported this week in the LANCET --approximately the British equivalent of the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION --examined 397 women with breast cancer, and 620 carefully-matched controls. Their blood had been drawn before any of the women were diagnosed with breast cancer, so this was a prospective study --the most convincing kind there is. (The prostate cancer study reported in January was also a prospective study).

The study found no relationship between IGF-1 in blood and breast cancers among the entire group, or among the post-menopausal group. However among pre-menopausal women increasing levels of IGF-1 in blood were strongly associated with increasing risk of breast cancer in a consistent dose-response relationship. Adjusting for other known breast cancer factors (age at which menstruation began; age at birth of first child; number of children; family history of breast cancer; and weight in relation to height) did not change the results.

Two previous studies had reported a relationship between IGF-1 levels in blood and breast cancer. However those were "retrospective" studies in which the IGF-1 levels in blood were measured AFTER the diagnosis of breast cancer, so it was possible that the cancers caused the IGF-1 increases instead of the IGF-1 increases causing the cancers. This latest study minimizes the likelihood that IGF-1 levels are raised by breast cancers.

The authors of the latest study say there is "substantial indirect evidence of a relation between IGF-1 and risk of breast cancer." They point to experiments showing that IGF-1 enhances the growth of cancerous breast cells in mice, and growth of healthy breast cells in rhesus monkeys. In humans, very-low-calorie diets protect against breast cancer and they also reduce blood levels of IGF-1. Low birth weight is protective against breast cancer and low birth weight also leads to low levels of IGF-1. Tall women tend to have an increased likelihood of breast cancer and they also tend to have increased levels of IGF-1. Tamoxifen, a chemical now being used to prevent breast cancer, is known to reduce IGF-1 levels in the blood. Several other chemicals thought to protect against breast cancer --such as vitamins A and D --may also lower blood levels of IGF-1.

It will be difficult for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to acknowledge that milk from rBGH-treated cows might be implicated in common cancers. Historically, FDA has maintained a very close relationship with Monsanto, the chemical company that spent a billion dollars developing rBGH. FDA approved rBGH for cows in 1993 and issued regulations that made it appear to be illegal to label milk rBGH-produced or rBGH-free. Some of the FDA officials who approved rBGH and who established the regulations discouraging labeling had previously worked for Monsanto. In 1994, Monsanto sued two grocery stores that labeled milk rBGH-free, because the chemical giant feared that, given a choice, consumers would reject rBGH-produced milk. FDA's anti-labeling regulations --signed into law by a former Monsanto official --were clearly intended to help Monsanto succeed in this marketing ploy. Eleven separate surveys have shown that Americans strongly prefer to have rBGH-treated milk labeled as such.

Monsanto officials say their rBGH product has been so successful among dairy farmers that they are building a new factory in Augusta, Georgia to produce a lot more of it. They say they intend to market the product world-wide. However in Canada and the European Union, rBGH has so far not been approved for use, partly because of unanswered health questions. The new studies linking IGF-1 to breast and prostate cancers are unlikely to help rBGH gain approval in Canada or Europe.

Because of FDA's and Monsanto's aggressive steps to prevent labeling of rBGH-produced milk, U.S. consumers of milk, chocolate milk, buttermilk, cream, whipped cream, ice cream, iced milk, cheese, cottage cheese, cream cheese, yogurt, frozen yogurt, custards --and perhaps many baked goods as well --are very likely ingesting increased quantities of IGF-1 today.

The milk industry --a powerful lobby in the U.S. --is currently conducting a campaign to increase milk consumption and top U.S. health officials are participating in the campaign. Recent advertisements show Donna Shalala, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, with a glass of milk in her hand and a "milk mustache" on her upper lip. Ms. Shalala oversees the U.S. FDA, among other agencies.

A few bold companies --such as Ben and Jerry's, makers of gourmet ice cream --now label their products as rBGH-free. However, other companies, such as Whole Foods, Inc. --an "organic" grocery chain that owns Fresh Fields stores --claim to sell no dairy products containing rBGH. Yet the Annapolis, Maryland Whole Foods outlet sells cheeses from Cabot Dairies in Vermont and Cabot readily acknowledges that it uses some milk from rBGH-treated cows. Thus rBGH may be even more widespread than advertisements and store policy statements would lead consumers to believe. In the U.S., it is legal for merchants to mislead consumers in this way.

Dr. Samuel S. Epstein at the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1996 published a paper arguing that IGF-1 from rBGH-treated cows may well promote cancer of the breast and of the colon in humans who drink such milk. Epstein pulled no punches: "In short," he wrote, "with the active complicity of the FDA, the entire nation> is currently being subjected to an experiment involving large-scale adulteration of an age-old dietary staple by a poorly characterized and unlabeled biotechnology product [rBGH, which is genetically engineered by Monsanto]. Disturbingly, this experiment benefits only a very small segment of the agrichemical industry while providing no matching benefits to consumers. Even more disturbingly, it poses major potential public health risks for the entire U.S. population," Dr. Epstein wrote.

Monsanto has bet the company's future on genetically-engineered products, and rBGH is the first such product to be marketed. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Monsanto will voluntarily terminate the uncontrolled IGF-1 experiment being conducted now on the American people. This is a company that plays hard ball. Monsanto lawyers frightened Fox TV executives into killing an investigative series that raised questions about rBGH and cancer. Just last month Monsanto wrote a threatening letter to Vital Health Publishing in Bloomingdale, Illinois over the proposed publication of AGAINST THE GRAIN, a book by Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey. Monsanto said the new book would libel its best-selling product, the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Lappe is an established medical writer and an acknowledged health policy expert. His earlier books include TOXIC DECEPTION (1991), BREAKOUT --THE EVOLUTION OF DRUG RESISTANT DISEASE (1995), and THE TAO OF IMMUNOLOGY (1997). Lappe and Bailey run the Center for Ethics and Toxics in Gualala, California (telephone 707-884-1700). After receiving Monsanto's threats, Vital Health Publishing abandoned its plans to publish AGAINST THE GRAIN --even though the book had already been printed --for fear of a Monsanto lawsuit, which might put them out of business even if Monsanto lost in court. Happily, Common Courage Press (Monroe, Maine; telephone 800-497-3207) will publish AGAINST THE GRAIN. AGAINST THE GRAIN is a detailed account of the perils of the new genetic technologies in agriculture. Monsanto's rBGH represents the tip of a very dangerous iceberg. Written by: Peter Montague


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