According to recent numbers, 80 percent of antibiotics on the market today are being administered to animals, much of which is given non-therapeutically to promote growth. A new report today on msnbc.com by Helena Bottemiller reveals that ractopamine hydrochloride, a growth promoting drug, has become the focus of an international trade dispute concerning its potential effects on human health.
“Although few Americans outside of the livestock industry have ever heard of ractopamine, the drug is controversial,” Bottemiller writes. “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.”
According to the story, USDA meat inspectors have reported an increase in “downer pigs”–livestock that is unable to walk–who have been fed ractopamine. On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously voted down a California ban on “downer” livestock being used in the food supply, on the basis of a federal preemption.
Bottemiller explains that ractopomine acts like a stress hormone, increasing heart rate and relaxing blood vessels. 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.
While these amounts have not exceeded the threshold the FDA has deemed safe, there is no allowance for the drug in the E.U. and China, where 70 percent of the world’s pork is consumed, and where the drug is currently banned. Acceptance of meat from animals raised on ractopamine in world markets has become a focus for U.S. trade officials. Bottemiller writes: “Resolving the impasse is now a top agricultural trade priority for the Obama administration, which is trying to boost exports and help revive the economy.”
At the heart of the trade dispute lies questions about the safety of the drug. Elanco, the maker of ractopamine, sold under the name Paylean, conducted the studies considered before approval of the drug in 2000, and has reported “no averse effects were observed for any treatments.” However, within a few years of the drug’s approval, the FDA received hundreds of reports from farmers, veterinarians, and USDA inspectors of sickened pigs.
Now the issue remains at an impasse at the U.N.’s Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets global food-safety guidelines. The commission has sought to set a standard for residue levels of ractopamine in meat. With such standards in place, Washington would be in a position to challenge countries with bans on ractopamine at the World Trade Organization. China and the E.U. are the main countries blocking the residue limit at Codex. In China, organ meats, which contain the highest traces of the drug, are popular fare, and in the E.U. officials do not want to risk public outcry by importing meat raised with growth-promoting drugs, which are illegal there.
Bottemiller reported this story in conjunction with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, the first and only independent, non-profit news organization that produces investigative journalism in the critically underreported areas of food, agriculture, and environmental health. This is the second story of the Food & Environment Reporting Network, previous stories can be found here. [Full disclosure: I am the Managing Editor of that venture.]
You can read the full report here at MSNBC.com. You can also find additional reporting here on testing of ractopamine as well as more details about the process underway at Codex here on the Food & Environment Reporting Network’s Web site.