Green Right Now Reports

THE USDA has proposed a new certification that would distinguish meat from animals that have not been fed growth-enhancing drugs.

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A majority of mass-produced US beef is treated with beta agonists to enhance the growth of muscle meat. US regulators say residues in the meat are small. Proponents for animal welfare say the drugs cause disturbing effects in the animals. The question of human effects remains largely unanswered.

The new “Never Fed Beta Agonists” label would allow livestock producers to show that their animals had not been given the controversial drugs, which are used to speed the growth of the animals’ muscles  before slaughter and which have been found to cause accelerated heart rates and muscle tremors in the livestock.

The growth hormones have been banned for livestock use in several countries and the European Union for fear of their effects on human health. Studies have shown that the residues of these drugs can speed up the heart rates and blood pressure of humans consuming them, though few studies have been done.

Regulatory bodies in the US, and other countries that allow beta agonists in livestock production, consider the risk to be small if the residues in meat are kept to a minimum. In addition, they say animals excrete a lot of the medicine.

The debate will likely continue. The Center for Food Safety and the Animal Legal Defense Fund have jointly sued the US Food and Drug Administration to release records on the health effects of beta agonists. The groups want to see the basis for their being approved by the FDA and tried for more than a year to get the information before suing in October.

Meanwhile, the USDA hasn’t created its new label out of concern for American consumers anyway. It is creating the label so it can reopen foreign markets for American pork, beef and poultry.

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One way to avoid growth hormones in meat is to buy grass-fed beef from a producer you know.

In February this year, Russia banned beef and pork imports from the US because of residues from the beta agonist ractopamine in  US meat. Russian officials said they would accept only pork and beef that was verified free of ractopamine and similar drugs.

Ractopamine, which is marketed as Paylean for pigs, Optaflexx for cattle and Topmax for turkeys.

Food Safety News reports that the new label “Never Fed Beta Agonists” could reopen markets in several countries where concerns about the human effects of these growth-enhancing drugs have led to restrictions on US meat, including China and Taiwan.

The Russian beef market alone was worth $300 million to US livestock producers in 2012.

Pork producers are torn, according to news reports, because it has become difficult serving a bifurcated world market in which some countries accept the growth hormones and some won’t.

A former official of the Pork Producers Council told Businessweek that feeding pigs the growth enhancer saves about $5 per hog in production costs. “I have no problem with bringing someone the product they want,” he says, “and the pork industry doesn’t either—as long as they pay for it.”

As for cattle,  the drugs in question are given to about 70 to 80 percent of U.S. herds and have had visible and harmful effects on cows fed them, according to Food Safety News:

“Merck Animal Health pulled Zilmax off the market in August of this year in order to audit its use. Merck officials denied that there were any safety issues associated with Zilmax, but a video showing cattle having trouble walking after being fed beta-agonist drugs raised concerns after it was presented that same month at an industry conference in Denver by JBS USA, a major U.S. meat packer.”