A new report for MSNBC by Helena Bottemiller revealed ractopamine hydrochloride, a growth promoting drug, has become the focus of an international trade dispute due to its potential effects on human health. Ractopamine is used in both pigs (trade name Paylean), cows (trade name Optaflexx) and turkeys (trade name Tomax). The controversy with exports arises because use of the drug is banned in 160 countries. In fact, it’s easier to list the countries that allow it: US, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. Some of those countries are now trying to fight the UN is setting an enforceable residue limit, which could force those countries to import meat from the US.
“Although few Americans outside of the livestock industry have ever heard of ractopamine, the drug is controversial…[it is] Fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States, it has sickened or killed more of them than any other livestock drug on the market, Food and Drug Administration records show. Cattle and turkeys have also suffered high numbers of illnesses from the drug” Bottemiller writes.
Exports are at jepoardy because China and the EU are blocking a global residue limit for ractopamine. The U.N.’s Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets global food-safety guidelines, is currently seeking to set a residue limit for ractopamine in meat. If such a standard were in place, Washington officials could challenge countries with bans on ractopamine at the World Trade Organization. China and the E.U. are behind the push to block the residue limit at Codex. In China, organ meats, which contain the highest traces of the drug, remain a popular food choice, and in the E.U., where similar drugs are illegal, officials in Brussels are weary of public outcry from importing meat raised with growth-promoting drugs.
This raises the question what is Ractopamine?
Ractopamine is sold under three brand names, all made by the same company: Paylean, Optaflexx and Tomax. Paylean is fed to pigs for the last 28 days of their lives, Optaflexx to cattle for the last 28 to 42 days of their lives, and Tomax to turkeys for the last 7 to 14 days of their lives. According to manufacturer Elanco Animal Health (a division of Eli Lilly), fully 45 percent of U.S. pigs and 30 percent of non-grass-fed cattle receive some form of ractopamine.
The drug works by increasing the body’s synthesis of protein — thereby causing animals to bulk up and yield more meat. Ractopamine is in the family of drugs known as beta-agonists, which contains many asthma drugs. Bottemiller writes, that its use in livestock agriculture produces up to 10 percent more meat, raising profits $2 per head. Though the drug has not been considered for human use, it is administered up until slaughter, and minute traces have been found in meat.
Ractopamine is so dangerous to human health that the FDArequires it to be labeled, “Not for use in humans. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask.”
U.S. farmers have complained that ractopamine induces hyperactivity, muscle damage and even a 10 percent death rate in their pigs and cattle, a concern confirmed by a 2003 study published in the Journal of Animal Science.
The FDA even acknowledged these effects in 2002, when it accused Elanco of concealing data from the agency. It referenced complaints such as, “animals are down and shaking,” and “pig vomiting after eating feed with Paylean.” Despite a finding that Elanco falsified information to the FDA, the Agency went on to approve its use in cows and turkeys.
Until the export issue is resolved consumers looking to avoid ractopamine should look for hormone free meats.
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