Special Report: Why consumers care about hormones in beef
By Beverly Cheng on 03/07/01 for www.meatingplace.com

Imagine a typical shopper at the grocery store, picking up some ground beef patties for dinner. She reaches for the product she normally buys, but then a package of "organic" beef - produced from cattle that are not implanted with growth-promoting hormones - catches her eye. Should she "go organic?" Is it safer than the "regular" beef?

With all the negative media coverage beef has been getting lately, it's no wonder consumers are questioning the wholesomeness of the beef they purchase for their families. A New York Times editorial in January harshly criticized the use of antibiotics in livestock, urging the public to take a "vital interest" in the issue because the number of resistant microbes is increasing due to overuse of antibiotics.

The Times editorial came on the heels of a major report issued by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group of activist but credible researchers, who argued that antibiotic treatment of cattle for non-therapeutic reasons was harmful too humans, and that eventually the ever-evolving microbes would develop resistance, making some potentially serious human diseases unresponsive to certain clinical antibiotics.

According to the Montreal Gazette, the debate over feed supplements has also come to public attention in Canada with the leak of a draft report by EU officials stating that gaps in Canada's meat-inspection system make it possible for cancer-causing residues to exist in meat sold to consumers.

Although government-approved hormones have been used since the 1950s to promote faster livestock growth with more favorable fat-to-lean leaner ratios, the safety of hormones is at the center of a fierce debate between the European Union and the U.S. and Canadian producers.

In 1989, European Union officials placed a ban on U.S. beef imports, which has cost U.S. cattle producers an estimated $100 million annually, according to NCBA. The EU has claimed for more than 10 years that hormones leave carcinogenic residues in meat. Both the United States and Canada, which use three natural and three synthetic hormones approved by the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the Food and Drug Administration, claim that the EU ban is a thinly disguised effort to protect the European beef industry.

The consumer is left to wonder: Who's right?

Activists are quick to answer: Any use of hormone implants is unsafe. As one prominent anti-hormone scientist argues, "Estradiol (one of the six hormone implants used in cattle) is well-recognized as being a strong carcinogen. Even at the lowest level, it's carcinogenic, said Samuel Epstein, a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago's School of Public Health and chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition. "There's no such thing as a safe level."

According to Epstein, the American public "has been misled in many serious ways" about the production of meat. In his book "The Politics of Cancer Revisited," he cited studies in which steers were implanted with estradiol, then examined for residues 15 days later. The results of the study showed that estradiol residues in liver, kidney, muscle and fat increased substantially over normal background levels.

WHO officials have stated that estradiol implants may produce two- or five-fold variations in residue levels, which fall within the normal range found in untreated animals.

Epstein, like so many other activists, told The Meatingplace.com that he can only agree to disagree.

"I hate to use the word 'conspiracy,' but there has been a deliberate cover-up of the fact that there are extremely high residue levels in meat," he said. "These [WHO] data are obtained under controlled laboratory conditions. In real life these hormones are applied by untrained cowboys.

The hormones-cause-cancer bandwagon has gotten even more crowded of late. Margaret Haydon, a veterinarian for agency Health Canada has publicly criticized the agency for condoning hormones use and has become increasingly vocal in arguing for total ban on their use.

"Why should we have carcinogens in our food when they don't cause benefits?" she said to the Montreal Gazette.

Epstein also claims that livestock tested for estradiol or related residues are suspect.

The government is not shirking responsibility, but constantly on the lookout for improved residue testing, said Carol Blake, spokesperson for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. Currently, there are four types of on-site residue testing.

"What we're finding are very, very low levels, but that doesn't mean we're going to stop testing," Blake said. We're constantly looking to better target the testing."

USDA reports show that the three naturally occurring hormones - including estradiol, the sources of many of the EU's concerns - implanted in cattle show up in such low levels that they are deemed low priority for testing. In a chart recording danger levels for residues, with scores ranging from one (little or no cause for concern) to four (much cause for concern), natural hormones scored a one in the "withdrawal time" category. This means that even if an animal were slaughtered immediately after being implanted with estradiol or other natural hormones, the residue levels would be insignificant, with no danger to the consumer.

Naturally occurring hormones also scored low in the "cause for regulatory concern" and "impact on existing and new human disease" categories, thus placing "below the line" of high-priority testing substances.

These facts, not attempts to hide the truth from consumers, explain why there is little testing for residues, Gary Weber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association told The Meatingplace.com.

"After years of testing for residues and not finding any, the USDA said, 'There's simply no point in doing this anymore,'" Weber explained. "There isn't much residue testing because there aren't residues to test for."

Admittedly, the history of early hormone use is checkered. Synthetic diethystilbestrol, initially approved in 1954 as a growth stimulant for livestock, came under fire when it was discovered that daughters of women given DES while pregnant had an increased chance of contracting vaginal cancer. DES was subsequently banned in 1979.

But the hormones do provide benefits, are completely safe and are administered with care, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

"It's interesting that the EU and others intentionally use the term 'hormone-treated' to try to send the message that the beef has been treated with hormones as opposed to animals receiving implants," Weber said. "The beef itself is never treated. It's very safe, and (hormone implants) really do enhance growth and efficiency."

According to NCBA data, the pencil eraser-sized hormone implants, which are placed beneath the skin behind an animal's ear, produce steers and heifers that reach market weight faster and carry less fat. This provides nutritional benefits and lowers the cost of beef to consumers 20 cents to 30 cents a pound, Weber pointed out.

Concerns about the misuse of hormone implants are unfounded, Weber added, because the implants are designed to release hormones into the bloodstream, dissolving within 90 days. If the implants are placed directly into muscle for enlargement, they dissolve too quickly and don't produce the 60- to 100-day protein stimulation, thus wasting the implant, Weber explained.

"There's no incentive for misusing hormones," he said, "but there are no incentives to being irresponsible, either."

Further, the difference in hormone levels between beef from a non-implanted steer and beef from an implanted steer is less than 0.7 nanograms (a billionth of a gram), according the NCBA. Three ounces of beef from an implanted steer contain 1.9 nanograms of estrogen, compared with 34 nanograms in milk, 993 nanograms in one egg, and 2,700 nanograms in four ounces of cabbage.

Strict regulations in place

The six hormones used in U.S. cattle are approved by five international scientific bodies: the World Health Organization, the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization, the European Commission Scientific Working Group on Anabolic Agents in Animal Production and the Codex Alimentarius Commission. Further, Weber said, the Food and Drug Administration has been investigating hormone use extensively for the last 50 years.

"It's not easy to get products through the FDA," Weber said. "I'm confident we wouldn't be using implants if there were risks. The EU seems to be willing to go to any length, even to [invent] imaginary risks, to win this case. They won't even let us sell labeled beef and let [European] consumers choose."

The consumer at the grocery store here at home may choose either "organic" or "regular" beef. But right now, there is no clear-cut answer on which is better, consumers will have to wait for that verdict, and make their own decisions in the meantime.