The FDA ruled that ractopamine was safe and approved it for pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and turkeys in 2008. As with many drugs, the approval process relied on safety studies conducted by the drug-maker — studies that lie at the heart of the current trade dispute. The drug, ractopamine hydrochloride, is fed to pigs and other animals right up until slaughter and minute traces have been found in meat. ref Pharmacologically, it is a beta-adrenergic agonist. It is the active ingredient in products known as Paylean for swine and Optaflexx for cattle, developed by Elanco Animal Health, a division of Eli Lilly and Company, for use in food animals for growth promotion.

Ractopamine aka Paylean and Optaflexx has been banned in the European Union, mainland China and Russia, citing concerns about its effect on human health, limiting U.S. meat exports to key markets.

chemical structure of Ractopamine

chemical structure of Ractopamine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some U.S. food companies also avoid meat produced with the feed additive, including Chipotle restaurants, meat producer Niman Ranch and Whole Foods Markets. The FDA ruled that ractopamine was safe and approved it for pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and turkeys in 2008. As with many drugs, the approval process relied on safety studies conducted by the drug-maker — studies that lie at the heart of the current trade dispute.

In October the CFS (Center for Food Safety) and ALDF (Animal Legal Defense Fund) sued the FDA for withholding records pertaining to ractopamine’s safety.ref According to the lawsuit, in response to the groups’ requests for information “documenting, analyzing, or otherwise discussing the physiological, psychological, and/or behavioral effects” of ractopamine, the FDA has only produced 464 pages out of 100,000 pages that exist. Worse, all 464 pages have already been released as part of a reporter’s FOIA. ref

The Codex Alimentarius Commission—an obscure but important global food standards-setting entity—has been unable to adopt a residue standard for ractopamine, a drug used to promote rapid growth in pigs, cattle, and turkeys. Proposed Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) in beef and pork products have been stuck at the final step in the Codex process since 2008. China and the European Union, which has 27 country votes at Codex, are vehemently opposed to adopting MRLs for ractopamine. They have so far managed to block repeated attempts by the U.S., Brazil, and others who use the drug in livestock production and want a standard adopted. If a global standard were set, the United States could pursue trade actions against countries that ban meat produced with the drug, such as China, Taiwan, and the EU. Chinese scientists, who objected to the residue standards, were especially concerned because organ meats such as the lungs, liver, intestines and kidneys are more prevalent in the Chinese diet and thus people who ate them could face higher exposures to the drug. Though China has long banned the use of these drugs in livestock production, the government in December officially banned their production and sale, and 19 factories making “lean meat powder” were shut down, according to official Chinese media.

The Effects of Ractopamine on Behavior and Physiology of Finishing Pigs

Pigs fed ractopamine were more difficult to handle and had elevated heart rates and catecholamine levels after 4 weeks of administration. Pigs that are more difficult to move are more likely to be subjected to rough handling and increased stress during transportation, implying reduced welfare, increased workload for the handlers and, potentially, poorer meat quality. Further research is needed to determine why ractopamine-fed pigs are more difficult to handle and to elucidate ways to ameliorate adverse behavioral responses to handling, in order to prevent widespread reduction in finishing pig well-being and unnecessary costs to the industry. ref

Smithfield Sale Raises New Questions About the Future of Ractopamine

The sale of Smithfield Foods, the United States’ largest pork producer, to Shuanghui International, China’s largest meat company, raises new questions about the future of ractopamine, a controversial growth-promoting drug that is widely used in U.S. pork production and has long been the subject of trade disputes. The U.S. government initially refused to meet China and Russia’s recent demands for ractopamine-free certification because trade officials believe the restrictions are unwarranted and not based on science. The EU has sharply questioned the science backing the drug. China says it’s worried about the higher levels of drug residues that can be found in pig organs, which are part of a traditional Chinese diet, and Russia claims the drug could pose health risks. U.S. trade officials say opposition to ractopamine is purely political. The USDA is urging Russia and others to accept the Codex residue standard, which allows ractopamine at or below 10 parts per billion in muscle meat.

Smithfield, Americans Double-Hog-Dare You: Can You Prove Your “Ractopamine-Free” Claim Goes the Distance?

Last week, pork-producer Smithfield formally announced that within only a matter of weeks, 50% of its pork production would be free of the feed additive ractopamine.  Ractopamine is a controversial and inadequately-vetted beta-agonist drug banned or severely restricted in most countries.  Last year, Center for Food Safety (CFS) petitioned FDA to address U.S. ractopamine use. Ractopamine causes animals to grow muscle quickly, but it has numerous adverse effects.  It is connected to “downed” animals, muscular tremors, cardiovascular dysfunction, and increased aggressive behaviors in animals.  But which consumers, if any, will benefit from Smithfield’s approach?  A look at what led to the announcement and what it really means reveals—unless Smithfield can confirm otherwise—that the beneficiaries are unlikely to be Americans.

First, while Smithfield’s announcement is a major breakthrough in the international debate over ractopamine, its action also benefits its own bottom line by appeasing foreign markets.  It comes only months after Russia, China, Taiwan, and the European Union took very strong public stances and refused U.S. pork that is not certified as “ractopamine-free.”

Second, the announcement hides a more duplicitous reality.  Ractopamine is big business because it dramatically speeds up hog growth.  Producers using ractopamine can earn anywhere between $2 and $6 more per head, which is nothing to squeal at.  With financials like this, is the international market the only reason Smithfield will so willingly stop using ractopamine in 50% of its production?  Perhaps there is another reason.  Perhaps instead of ractopamine, Smithfield is simply substituting ractopamine’s evil and more potent twin, zilpaterol. ref

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