Insights by Goldie
Sound Consumer | May 2001
by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist
Q: My brother-in-law from Missouri grew up on a farm and currently still raises soybeans. We had a discussion about organic foods and also about meats grown without antibiotics and hormones. He insists that very few cattle are grown using these chemicals today. I think the answer is quite the opposite. What's the truth?
—Susan Grumman, Issaquah member
A: I'd say the truth is your brother-in-law, like many U.S. consumers, is placing his trust in the official line that "the U.S. has the safest food supply in the world," which we've all been told. In many ways, we certainly do. But there are some very serious regulatory problems too, especially when it comes to the industrialization of all meat production, heavy reliance on drugs and hormones, and inadequate inspection systems. Most people realize these powerful substances are commonly used commercially, but assume "if or when potentially harmful hormones and antibiotics are used, then the meat certainly is monitored and tested regularly to protect public health." It is chilling to learn otherwise.
Independent researchers, such as the eminent Dr. Samuel Epstein, M.D., from the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois (and chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, www.preventcancer.org), used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain confidential notes and reports from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These records reveal high residues of sex hormones in U.S. meat products — contrary to repeated and explicit assurances to the contrary by the FDA and USDA. Dr. Epstein also reports that virtually none of the approximately 130 million head of livestock slaughtered annually are tested for residues of sex hormones and that little monitoring is done for illegal animal drugs, including antibiotics.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports "almost half of all antibiotics produced in the U.S. are used in livestock production ... much of that ... is the routine and prolonged subtherapeutic dosing of animals with antibiotics such as penicillin and tetracycline to speed animal growth" (similar practices extend to the production of penned salmon and other farmed fish).
Epstein reports that the most commonly used growth stimulants in beef production are the sex hormones — estradiol, progesterone and testosterone, or three synthetic forms. Estradiol in particular is implicated in cancer in the reproductive and non-reproductive organs of rodents. Twenty years of research have implicated it in breast and uterine cancers in women and pointed to its gene-damaging (genotoxic) effects. In addition, there's grave concern for the effects of these substances on the sexual development of children.
Officially, antibiotics are to be restricted to treatment of disease. The reality, however, is that industrial beef production methods — including feedlot reliance on growth hormones to stimulate fast weight gain and muscle mass — also leads to stressed and disease-prone animals. Powerful antibiotics are used routinely to prevent disease, treat the animals and to promote growth. Predictably, antibiotic resistance in the treatment of both animal and human disease has been well documented and widely reported by the media in the past decade and currently is one of the biggest concerns in public health and the food supply. Yet, little has changed in the industrial meat production sector.
Growth hormones are considered an economically smart part of doing business by large-scale industrial beef producers. Typically administered via an ear implant, these potent drugs dramatically increase weight gain and sharply reduce both feedlot time and feed quantities. Steers reach market weight an average of 17 days sooner than without growth hormones, making as much as $80 more per animal for the producer.
Growth hormones are used in the U.S., Canada, Japan and in nearly two dozen other countries, although the European Union (EU) prohibits use of growth hormones in EU member countries. Applying the "precautionary principle" (a better-safe-than-sorry approach to implementing health regulations), the EU banned all imports of hormone-produced red meat as of January 1989. Canada and the U.S. appealed the ban to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as an illegal trade barrier; and the EU lost.
The EU continues to defy the WTO order to lift the ban, in spite of painful economic retaliatory sanctions that have been imposed by the U.S. The EU also has banned the use of all veterinary antibiotics identified as similar or identical to those used in humans. This, too, is a prudent precautionary approach which, unfortunately, the United States has not taken.