This drug, banned in Europe, Russia and China, may be in your lunch

March 31, 2015
A dairy cow peers out from behind a fence in Chino, California

A cow peers out from behind a fence in a file photo. REUTERS/Alex Gallardo

If you eat meat in any country in the European Union, or even in China or Russia, you don’t have to worry about getting a dash of ractopamine with your pork or beef. All these nations ban the use of the growth-promoting drug.

But if you eat meat in the United States, buyer beware. Ractopamine may be unsafe for you. The drug is certainly unsafe for pigs and other farm animals dosed with it. It has caused hundreds of thousands of pigs to become lame or unable to walk without intense pain, or die.

Pork producers feed pigs ractopamine during the last few weeks before they are sent to the slaughterhouse. It alters the pigs’ metabolism so that 10 percent more of the food they eat turns into muscle. That translates into faster growth and leaner meat.

Eli Lily & Co’s Elanco Animal Health unit, the leading producer of ractopamine-based livestock drugs, said in a statement to Reuters last year that it remains confident in its products’ safety and the FDA’s approval process. The drug was originally approved by the FDA in 1999.

Beef producers are also flocking to ractopamine, according to Fortune magazine, after major meat packers refused to accept cattle doped with a similar muscle-building drug, Zilmax. Led by Tyson Foods and Cargill, the packers stopped accepting cattle treated with Zilmax in late 2013 after finding that the cattle were arriving at their slaughterhouses “hoofless” and in severe pain, according to a Reuters special report.

A March 2014 report from Texas Tech University and Kansas State University  found that during cattle’s lives “the incidence of death was 80 percent greater in animals administered [Zilmax].”

Since the major packers stopped accepting cattle treated with Zilmax, the drug’s manufacturer, Merck, has begun studies to show the drug is safe and can go back on the market. But the packers have so far refused to go along. Not only do they say it causes animals to suffer; it also would prevent meat sales to foreign nations that ban use of the drug.

Now, however, beef producers are replacing Zilmax with ractopamine, though it seems to offer little for the well-being of their animals while risking serious harm to them. The drug has been linked to nearly a quarter-million cases of adverse reactions in pigs, including lameness, trembling, hyperactivity, hoof disorder, dyspnea, collapse and death.

Beef eaters should be concerned. The Food and Drug Administration’s original approval of ractopamine included no safety assessment on humans. A 2009 review of the related science by the European Food Safety Authority identified one assessment of the drug involving humans. That assessment involved just six healthy young men, one of whom dropped out after his heart began racing and pounding abnormally.

Yet the FDA allows pig producers to give ractopamine to their animals up until they are shipped to the slaughterhouse. A 2013 Consumer Reports study of supermarket pork products found ractopamine in one in five of the pork products inspected.

The meat industry’s focus on increasing production could be putting it at odds with consumers, who are ever more concerned about food safety and animal welfare.

The success of “fast-casual” restaurant chains like Chipotle, which foreswear meat from animals raised in the most inhumane conditions and dosed with drugs like ractopamine, shows that consumers will seek out and pay more for naturally raised meat.

Picking up on this, Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer, has pledged to start seriously cutting back on ractopamine. It has also pledged to stop using gestation crates.

The public has already reacted against the extreme confinement of calves in veal crates, mother pigs in gestation crates and chickens in battery cages. As people learn how growth-promoting drugs can harm farm animals, they could well respond the same way.

The meat industry talks about responsible animal husbandry. But some parts of it look more like animal production run amok.

Long focused on ramping up meat production to meet increasing demand, producers jam animals together indoors, often in tight crates and cages; breed them to grow at a much faster rate than their natural pace, and dope them with hormones, antibiotics and other drugs to augment what’s been achieved through selective breeding for fast growth and hyper-productivity.

For food safety and animal health reasons, the European Union decided many of these drugs have no place in agriculture. China and Russia, not known for strict food-safety regulations, agree.

The question remains why American farmers still use them?


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Here’s an easy solution: go veggie! )

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

Disturbing practices all designed around hyper-capitalism’s march toward un-constrained profits – unconstrained by any sort of morality that is.

Posted by pyradius | Report as abusive


Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

And this coming from someone who doesn’t even want people to eat meat. Gee, he is really concerned about meat eaters, isn’t he? Fact is, if they didn’t use some drugs on livestock for various and legitimate purposes, the price of meat would skyrocket, in part because way more livestock would become sick and die. That would be fine with HSUS Chief Wayne Pacelle, because then meat would be just become unaffordable. If you want objective and informed information about animals, animal welfare, and drugs for animal husbandry, then go to the American Veterinary Medical Assoc., which this news organization is in the habit of assiduously ignoring. I wonder why.

Posted by Calfri | Report as abusive

Based on this logic, human health is a cost issue. Cheaper meat equals meat tainted with growth hormones. If there were full disclosure on all meat packages I wonder how much of this meat would sell.

Posted by sirchin4 | Report as abusive

Bad food=chronic disease=doctor visits=more drugs=hospital stays=more doctor visits.
Bad food. It keeps the economy vital. Get sick today.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

“The question remains why American farmers still use them?”

Stupid question. There are already two well-known answers in the books that every patriotic American Exceptionalist should know by now.

1. Our “exceptional” political lobbying system is there to ensure that corporate interests are well represented within the government. These drugs give our poor government subsdized farmers a chance to compete and to maintain our globla lead in obesity. I mean, anyone who would suggest sacrificing profitability and production quota just to satisfy over regulation by the FDA is clearly an liberal.

2. Europe, China and Russia are just pretenders in the game of scientific knowledge. Simply put, they don’t really know anything and certainly not more than us. This is ‘Murica and our superiority in the field of health is particularly unquestioned. Sure they might claim that some recent scientific study is on their side but the Almighty is on our side. That’s what counts in the end.

Stop questioning the ways of America or I will be forced to label you as an unpatriotic Muslim communist.

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Calfri explains: “Fact is, if they didn’t use some drugs on livestock for various and legitimate purposes, the price of meat would skyrocket…:

Yeah, you apparently did not read the article. This is not medicine. It’s a feed additive for rapid weight gain (beta-adrenergic agonist). Has nothing to do with preventing or curing sickness in animals.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

Not only meat,even food items like most breads in US contain Calcium Propionate as preservative which is banned in countries like France,Britain etc.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

They should treat is as any other drug and require is stopped six weeks before the animal is slaughtered. Or a better solution we can revert back to 1800s all natural framing practices and let have the world starve.

Posted by Fixento | Report as abusive

To blah 77: Europe is just a pretender in the game of scientific knowledge? Really? Ever heard of people like Pasteur, Crick, Newton, Galileo, Hawking? All Europeans. What a condescending, stereotypical, “ugly American” kind of comment.

Posted by shootmyownfood | Report as abusive

shootmyownfood: Yeah….. I’m not sure how I can make my original post drip with even more sarcasm…..

Posted by blah77 | Report as abusive

Asking Wayne Pacelle to comment honestly on animal feeding is like asking Hilary to stump for the next republican presidential candidate. Mr. Pacelle purposefully misleads readers multiple times. One Example is taking The Texas Tech/K State paper’s statement about an 80% increase risk of death (not actual incidence)out of context. In reality the cattle exposed to ractopamine had a risk of death of ~ 0.48% and unexposed cattle had a risk of death of ~0.26% depending on the study cited. Which by the papers own admission is “is a relatively rare event in feedlot cattle”. Also this is an associative analysis which by definition cannot determine cause. Shame on Reuters for allowing such fear mongering. Lets have an honest discussion. Where is the other side of the story to this most extreme opinion?

Posted by dataspeaks | Report as abusive

Another reason why places like McDonald’s and Wendy’s have been relegated to the ghetto. They don’t listen to people, and they just keep cranking out the same nasty food-like products.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive