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Even Putin Thinks the Drugs We Give to American Livestock Are Bad News

Eighty percent of American meat producers use ractopamine, a drug that’s added to livestock feed to accelerate the animals' weight gain, resulting in cardiovascular stress, seizures, and hyperactivity. It's so sketchy, even Putin has banned this...
March 20, 2014, 7:01pm

American livestock via Flickr user United Soybean

The decision to hold this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi focused a lot of international attention on Russia, which prompted unending discussions about the kinds of human-rights abuses permitted in Putin’s regime—you know, bans on homosexuality, limits on the right to free assembly, that sort of stuff. But there were also debates over the leader’s sanity, which were recently reignited when Putin announced that he had decided on a military intervention in Ukraine. Russia might toe the line when it comes to freedoms that Americans like to take for granted, but the former Soviet nation is totally not OK with one American practice in particular: the way that we produce meat.

Russia is among more than 160 countries in the world that have banned or severely restricted the use of ractopamine, a drug that’s added to livestock feed to accelerate weight gain in pigs, cattle, and turkeys. Despite concerns that human ingestion of the drug can lead to the growth of tumors and can negatively affect the liver, kidneys, thyroid, and prostate, big meat producers in the US use ractopamine with abandon. Eighty percent of pig and cattle operations around here rely on it.

That’s a number that two advocacy groups would like to see drastically reduced. In December 2012, the Center for Food Safety and the Animal Legal Defense Fund jointly filed a petition with the FDA—which oversees the use of feed additives like ractopamine—asking the agency to release its findings on the drug’s safety, which it has never done. Even though organizations like the CFS suspect that ractopamine can cause severe health problems for both the animals it’s administered to and the humans that eat them, there’s no proof, and therefore not enough information to demand an outright ban. According to CFS senior staff attorney Paige Tomaselli, that’s because the FDA conducts its own internal reviews of the drugs it approves, and the companies marketing those drugs are the ones that compile and present the deciding information to the FDA— no outside, impartial agencies get to weigh in.

“The FDA allows a number of controversial drugs, antibiotics, and growth hormones to enter the food supply,” Tomaselli said. “Ractopamine is far from an exception.”

Tomaselli said that prior to drafting the petition, the CFS submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FDA.

“They completely stonewalled us,” she said. And apart from a perfunctory reply that the petition had been received, the FDA has yet to respond to the document the groups submitted more than a year ago. An FDA spokeswoman reached for comment on this story stated that the petition was still under review and that she could not discuss the issue further.

While ractopamine’s effects on humans remain concealed, what it does to animals is clear. Findings from both the FDA and the European Food Safety Authority link the drug to cardiovascular stress, muscular tremors and seizures, aggression and hyperactivity.

“Ractopamine is a shining example of the new creative ways the meat industry finds to make animals suffer,” said Danny Lutz, a litigation fellow at the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He cited the disturbing trend of pigs that are treated with ractopamine becoming “downed,” literally collapsing on their way to the slaughterhouse.

“They just lie down and quit moving,” he said.

Meat producers’ continued use of ractopamine is sure to have an effect on their bottom line. The precedent was set last year, when Russia enacted a nearly nine-month ban on the import of American beef, pork, and poultry, which the country ended shortly before the Olympics kicked off. In that time, US meat companies collectively lost about $6 million in sales.

One brand that felt the effects of the ban especially acutely was Smithfield Foods, the country’s largest pork producer, whose net income in the quarter following the announcement of the ban dropped by 63 percent. Shortly afterwards, Smithfield announced that it would convert its largest plant, in Tar Heel, North Carolina, to be ractopamine-free by this summer.

While it waits for an answer from the FDA, the ALDF has submitted another petition, this time to the top ten pork producers in the US, asking them to voluntarily stop the use of ractopamine in their plants.

Hopefully those companies won’t take a year to respond.

Follow Lauren Rothman on Twitter.