You may take comfort in the fact that in the US, the pork you eat cannot legally come from pigs that have been given hormones. That's right: hormones are technically illegal in pork production in America.
But the pork belly you slice into tonight for dinner might just have way more in common with lubed up, V-tapered bodybuilders than you previously thought. No, they weren't rolling around in a vat of coconut-scented body oil. But your pig may have been given a little-known muscle-enhancing drug called ractopamine, which is sort of like human growth hormone for pigs.
While most pigs in America are administered this drug, its use in pork products is actually prohibited in other parts of the world. China? Nope, doesn't allow ractopamine. Europe? Forget about it.
But in the future, you might see more pressure in the US for ractopamine-free pork. And you can thank an intrepid man named David Maren for it. He is the founder of Tendergrass Farms and he just got approval from the FDA to put the following statement on the pork products he produces: "no ractopamine—a beta-agonist growth promotant." Maren told NPR that he believes his will be the first USDA-approved label on pork to explicitly mention ractopamine.
Ractopamine causes pigs to build muscle fast, rather than just adding fat as they are wont to do naturally. More muscle means more money for farmers—and this can add up to two or three additional dollars for each pig sold. The FDA approved the drug for use in pigs in 1999 and says it is safe. But Maren's labels could be a game-changer.
This may be a problem for traditional pork farmers, who are afraid the new labeling will get people thinking: Do they want ractopamine-free pork? What is it, anyway? Is pork free from ractopamine something to seek out?
The EU, Russia, and China all seem to think so. They have not approved the muscle-enhancing drug for use in pigs.
Today, in the US, you have to look for organic pork to avoid ractopamine. The word "natural" on the label doesn't guarantee it. Most consumers were never even aware ractopamine was in their pork in the first place.
The nation's pork producers are now afraid that a little bit of knowledge about ractopamine could start to make people nervous. A pork producer named David Hardin from Indiana said, "When you put a label like that on there, it will immediately make the consumer think, 'Well, what is this? It must be something bad,'" he says.
We all know that consumers are apt to get alarmed when faced with scientific buzzwords. Consider the dihydrogen monoxide hoax, wherein people have been convinced to sign petitions to ban tap water when told of its chemical name and properties.
In short, farmers are afraid—and rightly so—that the pressure is now on to get them to stop using the drug. But only time will tell.
So the next time you dig into a smoky rasher of bacon or a tender piece of pork belly, you might want to think about the muscle-enhancing drugs the pig you are eating may well have been taking.