Transcript: Ractopamine in Pork
Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.
Earlier this year, China rejected 200,000 pounds of pork from the United States, after discovering residues in the meat of an adrenaline-like drug called ractopamine, which is fed to U.S. pigs and turkeys as a growth-promoter to improve muscle yields.
What about the domestic U.S. meat supply? Last year’s report from the USDA National Residue program said 310 pigs were tested (out of about 10 million slaughtered). The 2012 report listed the number of tested pigs at zero.
That’s why it’s so important to have public interest groups, such as Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, to fill the gaps. Yesterday, they released a report in which they analyzed 240 U.S. pork products, and found trace levels of ractopamine in about 20% of retail pork sampled.
In response, the National Pork Producers Council tried to allay concerns by noting that the levels found in U.S. pork chops were less than half the ractopamine residue limit set by the UN Codex Commission this summer. What they didn’t mention was that out of the 143 ballots cast, the Commission came within a single vote of setting any safe levels in pork, given “outstanding safety concerns.”
The National Pork Producers Council also failed to mention that residue limit was based on a single human study that only had six people in it. That six-person study was exhibit #1 in the European Food Safety Authority’s analysis of the drug. (EFSA is Europe’s equivalent to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration). The experiment in question was a preliminary study, designed not to establish a safety level, but to find a suitable test dose for a larger study that never happened.
Ractopamine was originally developed as an asthma medication, but it didn’t work. The study involved giving these six men between 5 and 40 milligram doses of ractopamine. At the higher levels, the subjects reported feeling their hearts racing and pounding. In fact, one of the six subjects was withdrawn from the study, because, apparently, he couldn’t take it. At 5 milligrams, though, no cardiac changes were noted. So, that’s the dose the Codex Commission used to calculate the maximum allowable meat residue, and acceptable human daily intake levels.
Just because the dose didn’t cause a problem in six people, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that level is safe. The EFSA panel calculated that a study of six people wouldn’t even have the statistical power to pick up a 40% change in cardiac output. To detect as statistically significant a 10% change in blood pumping, the study would have required at least about 60 people.
In addition, the study only looked at the cardiovascular effects of ractopamine. Given the adrenaline-like effects, one would expect metabolic effects—such as an increase in blood sugar levels, muscle tremors, or behavioral effects, such as restlessness, apprehension, or anxiety. Also, all six subjects were healthy young men. What about vulnerable populations, such as children, those with heart disease, or on certain medications?
The panel concluded that the UN limits did not sufficiently take these higher risk populations into account. Bottom line, the European Food Safety Authority concluded that the single small human study could not be taken as a basis to derive an acceptable daily intake, and consequently no proposal for maximum [meat] residue levels could be made. In other words, we just don’t have enough human data to determine what the safe level in meat may be.
Last month, the Council on the European Union joined China in reaffirming their ban on ractopamine, “[s]tressing that the policy…is based on persisting scientific uncertainty about the safety of products derived from animals treated with this substance…and also takes into account concerns on animal health and animal welfare….”
Studies going back a decade have shown that pigs on ractopamine may have chronically elevated heart rates, increased stress reactions, and difficulty walking. In fact, the warning label on the drug reads: ‘‘Caution: Pigs fed PAYLEAN [ractopamine] are at an increased risk for exhibiting the downer pig syndrome.” Meatier pigs, their slogan says, heftier profits; but, maybe, downer pigs—where pigs are too sick, injured, or exhausted to stand, and may be dragged to slaughter in chains.
It’s ironic that the pork industry continues to defend the use of gestation crates for pregnant pigs, on the pretext of preventing aggression between sows. Mother pigs are confined for nearly their entire lives, in crates so restrictive they can’t even turn around. This is from the communications director of the National Pork Producers Council, if you can believe it: “So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls…I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around.”
Anyway, the industry claims that this is to keep them from fighting, while at the same time feeding growing pigs a drug shown to increases aggressiveness and attacks—thought to be due to changes in brain chemistry in the pigs, caused by the drug.
Given the human and animal welfare concerns, why does the U.S. pork industry continue to feed this drug to millions of pigs every year? A few weeks ago, a meta-analysis was published in the Journal of Animal Science. Based on all the studies done to date, pigs fed ractopamine “had an overall carcass cutability advantage of 1.01 percentage units when compared to control pigs.” All this for a 1% greater yield.
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