by Mitchell Clute
Fourteen years after launching its recombinant bovine growth hormone product under the brand name Posilac, Monsanto has sold the product to a division of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly for $300 million. The sale is causing speculation that consumer rejection of the product, coupled with rBGH-free labeling efforts in many states, may have prompted the genetic engineering company to wash its hands of the product.
rBGH is banned by the European Union and is currently used on approximately 11 percent of the U.S. dairy cow population. "After 14 years of controversy, I think things reached a tipping point," said Ronnie Cummins, president of the Organic Consumers Association, based in Finland, Minn. "Big companies like Walmart, Kroger and Starbucks were rejecting milk tainted with the hormone, and it had become a liability for Monsanto. Not only was it not making money, but it was a festering wound from a PR standpoint."
For the past few years, Monsanto has lobbied state legislatures and departments of agriculture, attempting both to pressure dairies to use the product and to pass labeling laws designed to prevent dairies from telling consumers when a product is rBGH-free. Their efforts have met with some success, with several states either banning statements about rBGH-free milk from packaging or forcing companies to include a disclaimer stating that there is "no significant difference" between rBGH and non-rBGH products. It is not known whether Elanco, the Eli Lilly subsidiary that purchased Posilac, will continue these efforts.
Posilac increases milk production by about 10 percent, but anti-rBGH activists claim it may be responsible for a range of human health problems including increased rates of prostate and breast cancer and premature puberty in children. It also affects the health of cows in a variety of ways, including increased incidence of mastitis and reproductive issues.
"It's not clear that the sale really matters," said Mark Lipson of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, based in Santa Cruz, Calif. "Eli Lilly is perfectly capable of using the same strategy as Monsanto, and so far they're not saying what they'll do one way or the other."
But Cummins sees the sale as a way for Monsanto to bow out of the market gracefully without acknowledging the product has failed. "Eli Lily purchased it to protect the image of the genetic engineering industry, not to make money." Cummins said. "I believe after a decent interval, Eli Lilly will drop U.S. distribution to concentrate on overseas markets, particularly Brazil, and eventually drop it totally."