Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons, epSos.de
Americans may have a bird’s eye view to a lot of things, but U.S. citizens are largely kept in the dark regarding food safety issues, even if those issues have global implications.
If you’re a regular reader here, you’re probably already aware of the gross prevalence to which America’s meat is filled with unnecessary hormones and antibiotic treatments. We pump livestock full of drugs to preventively keep animals from getting sick due to their dirty living conditions; mass deaths would mean lowered profits.
But, few people are aware that some of the developed world refuses to trade with us when it comes to food treated with these drugs. One recent example comes from Taiwan. And unsurprisingly, U.S. media is not covering it.
Just days after the reelection of Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou, Washington is stepping up pressure on the administration to back down on its ban on ractopamine, a leanness- and growth-promoting drug used widely in pork and beef production in the United States. Taiwan’s zero tolerance policy for the drug, which applies to both domestic production and imports, has become a critical barrier to further liberalizing trade between the two countries.
That’s the latest from Food Safety News. Washington is saying Taiwan’s complaints are not science based and Taiwanese officials should release the ban to renew a trade relationship between the two countries. Not so fast, say Taiwanese farmers, who are threatening to protest these renewed efforts at lifting the ban.
Back in 2007, the Taiwanese government was in a similar situation after promising the World Trade Organization (WTO) they would establish maximum residue limits (MRLs) for ractopamine in pork, thus accepting some exports of U.S. beef. Farmers protested and the ban stayed.
The drug in question, ractopamine, is just one of hundreds of different drugs used on factory farms here in America. In particular, ractopamine is used to keep pigs lean and boost their growth but is showing up in trace amounts in food. The drug is produced by a company named Elanco (owned by Eli Lily), and was first approved for use in U.S. food animals in 1999. It is now approved in 25 other countries.
The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) released a report on msnbc.com, describing the tenuous trade relations between the European Union, China and the U.S. over food safety issues. The U.N.’s governing body, Codex Alimentarius Commission, or simply Codex, sets global food standards, and proposes things like appropriate MRLs for ractopamine. Codex has been deadlocked on approving ractopamine for open trade since 2003, when the U.S. first went after them, according to the report.
Since 2008, one question has hung in the balance: “What, if any, level of ractopamine is safe in meat?” If Codex were to lift the ban, Washington could then pressure the WTO to lift bans in other countries and secure the market.
The next page highlights some of the reasons this silly little drug is so incendiary.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons, procsilas
Why should we be concerned?
Ractopamine is a feed additive given to approximately 60 to 80 percent of U.S. pigs, reported FERN. Records from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), according to the FERN report, show the drug has resulted in “more reports of sickened or dead pigs than any other livestock drug on the market.”
Ractopamine is part of a drug class called beta-agonists, which essentially mimic the body’s stress hormones, increasing the heart beat and relaxing blood vessels, which can be helpful for asthma patients.
Ractopamine, however, has not been proposed for human use. But the U.S. sees no issue with the drug finding its way into our food supply. Though the USDA has found trace amounts in our food, they are deemed to be below the acceptable level.
The reason other countries refuse U.S. exports is because they will not allow for a drug threshold, stating no level is acceptable for consumption. Some socially conscious U.S. companies refuse to sell meat using feed additives as well, like Chipotle and Whole Foods Market.
Elanco mainly tested animals—mice, rats, monkeys and dogs—to judge how much ractopamine could be safely consumed. Only one human study was used in the safety assessment by Elanco, and among the six healthy young men who participated, one was removed because his heart began racing and pounding abnormally, according to a detailed evaluation of the study by European food safety officials.
Other US safety officials have similar doubts:
When Elanco studied the drug in pigs for its effectiveness, it reported that ‘no adverse effects were observed for any treatments.’ But within a few years of [ractopamine] approval, the company received hundreds of reports of sickened pigs from farmers and veterinarians, according to records from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.
USDA meat inspectors also reported an increase in the number of ‘downer pigs’—lame animals unable to walk—in slaughter plants. As a result of the high number of adverse reactions, the FDA requested Elanco add a warning label to the drug, and it did so in 2002.
But it is getting increasingly harder to go up against Big Ag companies and legislators supporting them, even with verifiable doubts.
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons, barb.howe
Hard To Fight It
Many would be hard-pressed to try and fight the meat industry, even in spite of damning reports like the one above. The industry’s power and influence is widespread, and with ever-expanding funds to defeat detractors, the odds are slim in making headway.
The precedent set in California holds that no state can overrule federal rules on meat production. California lost a case earlier this year, after attempts to ban the sale of livestock unable to walk was met with a lawsuit by meat producers. Now, these ailing animals can still be slaughtered and sold for food. And the animals were made lame because they were overly pumped full of beta agonists. Yum.
The Pork Network, an industry rag, said Taiwan’s ban is hurting sales, citing FDA approval for the drug and lack of scientific evidence to support Taiwan’s policy. The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) claims Taiwan is in violation of its WTO obligations by upholding the ban, said the Network.
The Pork Network also reported that “lifting the ractopamine ban would increase U.S. pork exports by around $240 million,” and that Taiwan’s stance on pork ractopamine is also going to negatively impact beef exports. The dispute over beef has now stopped trade talks between Taiwan and the U.S.
U.S. exports of beef and pork are on track to hit $5 billion each for the first time, the U.S. Meat Export Federation estimates.
“Whether the ban was lifted or whether a strict residue level was adopted, the issue was a scientific one that would surely affect public health,” said Taiwanese official Huang Wei-cher. “It would be ‘totally unacceptable’ if the government tried to solve this scientific problem with politics.”
But the meat industry isn’t the only one with something to gain. Big Pharma makes massive profits from drug use in animals raised for food. The more drugs sold to factory farmers, the more profitable both companies are. The msnbc.com report states:
Pigs fed [ractopamine] in the last weeks of their life produce an average of 10 percent more meat, compared with animals on the same amount of feed that don’t receive the drug. That raises profits by $2 per head, according to the drug’s manufacturer, Elanco.
Currently, China and the EU produce and consume a combined total of 70 percent of the world’s pork. The U.S. is looking to tap that…market. Pork exports to China totaled $463 million in 2010, reported FERN. To put it into perspective, China’s pork exports are only 2-3 percent of the market. “China is a potentially huge market for us,” said Dave Warner, spokesman for the NPPC. All of this is to gain less than 5 percent of the market.
China and the EU refuse to set a residue limit on ractopmaine due to oversight concerns. Especially when reports show Elanco’s self-created study is what Codex used to determine appropriate MRLs. If the ban on ractopamine is lifted, more countries will purchase our meat, sure. But, who will make sure the U.S. adheres by that limit? And how trustworthy is that limit to begin with? Just Google “USDA oversight,” and you will find countless reports that the agency’s oversight has failed to provide adequate food safety.
In the U.S., residue tests for ractopamine are limited. In 2010, for example, the U.S. did no tests on 22 billion pounds of pork; 712 samples were taken from 26 billion pounds of beef. Those results have not yet been released.
The Obama Administration’s goal is to spur our economy by opening up more trade, but at what cost?