Are Hormone Implants Safe? Part 1: The Politics
There are as many opinions about the safety of beef from implanted cattle as there are people.
In the late 1980s, the European Union banned the import of all hormone-treated meat from Canada and the United States, citing dangers to human health. This suggests that some sort of hormone-related risk from US beef caused the European community to press for the beef ban.
Let’s shed a little more light on the issue. The EU ban was triggered by an early growth promotant called DES (diethylstilbestrol), one of the first hormones used in feedlots. When DES was proven to cause cancer, the United States banned it in chicken and lamb production in 1959 and in all cattle production in 1979.
The European concern was triggered later—in the 1980s—when DES was detected in baby food made with veal. The baby food was made in France from French cows treated with DES, and thus had nothing to do with the United States. The resulting uproar led several European countries to ban the use of all hormones in cattle, which effectively banned most North American beef.
The dispute over the use of hormones in cattle is long running. The United States and Canadian governments maintain that the hormones being used in meat production today are safe. The European Union claims they are not. So why is this issue such a hot political potato?
Many economists and scientists believe that the EU ban was deliberately protectionist, and that beef was singled out because Europe has historically depended on beef from other countries—particularly the United States and Brazil. Why? Because there’s not much good grazing pasture in Europe. To protect the “inefficient” beef markets of the EU, the ban was created and received generous support from European consumers despite the lack of conclusive evidence.
Arbitrating the matter is the World Trade Organization (WTO), which rules on international trade between nations. The process by which rulings are arrived at is complex, involving hearings from both sides of the issue, expert/scientific testimony, drafting of an interim report, review, a final report, and ultimately a ruling, which becomes international law. If one side breaks the terms of the agreement, the penalty generally involves some sort of trade sanction.
In 1997, the World Trade Organization sided with the United States and Canada, saying that the EU’s health claims weren’t scientifically justified, and that the hormones used were unlikely to pose a hazard to human health, if good animal husbandry was practiced. However, the ruling still stands.
To help alleviate the situation (which was hurting both North America and Europe), in early 2012 the European Union offered concessions to partially defuse this 20-year trade war. The deal allowed the EU to retain its ban on imports of hormone-treated beef in return for an increase in its import quota for non-hormone-treated beef from the United States and Canada. In return, the US and Canada lifted import tariffs on a range of European farm produce like cheeses, chocolate, truffles, and other specialty products.
Are Hormone Implants Safe? Part 2: The Science
Science, like opinion, changes. But opinion is subjective and science, ideally, is objective. It’s just that as new information or findings emerge, they are incorporated into scientific research, and so what we know today is colored by and rests upon what we knew yesterday.
So for every report that concludes that the use of hormones in beef production poses a threat to children, another report points out that our bodies continually make the exact same hormones that the EU nations have banned in meat, and that we eat eggs and butter, which contain the same hormones in much higher concentrations than in beef.
An experiment by Iowa State University found that growth-promoting hormones decrease the land required to produce a pound of beef by two-thirds, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions nearly 40 percent per pound of beef compared with cattle never implanted with hormones. That seems like a big check in the positive column for hormone use.
However, other studies have focused on the negative environmental impacts of hormone residues in cattle manure. When manure from feedlots runs off into the surrounding environment, these hormones can contaminate surface water and groundwater. Multiple studies have shown that children are particularly sensitive to these kinds of hormones, even at very tiny levels. Even the USDA has commented on the danger of hormone residues flushed into groundwater. But since cattle produce hormones naturally, this may be more of an issue of manure management than implant residues—it’s very difficult to isolate which hormone residues are the result of implants and which are not.
I’m not a scientist. I’m a butcher. All I can do is try to present the most factually accurate information out there. One expert I spoke with is Marcia Herman-Giddens, adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, Chapel Hill. In the late 1990s, she was the lead author of a seminal study on early puberty in girls, in which she expressed her concern about the effect of hormones and other endocrine-affecting chemicals in our environment. Herman-Giddens told me this:
When I wrote that study, there was very little data on hormone implants in cattle, although the doses were not inconsequential. To me, the use of hormone implants is still an open question, and a complex one. Effects, if any, could depend on the amount of meat consumed, interactions with other substances, and possible cumulative effects of similar exposures. I believe the reasons for early puberty involve a multiplicity of causes.
My generation did not grow up in a chemical-infused world. Now it’s all around us . . . in plastics like BPA, in herbicides and pesticides, even in dental sealants on children’s teeth. We are living in a sea of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. So it’s only natural that, depending on lifestyle, some people will encounter more exposure than others. It’s not just one thing—it’s cumulative.
In my opinion, the use of hormones to stimulate cattle growth is still a significant issue for the public. I believe that what’s needed is open, independently funded research to avoid public perception that the way the beef industry is framing this issue suggests that there’s something to hide. So for me, the jury’s still out.
In a 2009 report written for the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy, analyst Susan Holtz noted the dramatic increase in drugs used annually in Canadian animal husbandry—particularly in intensive (read: feedlot) operations. She pointed out that much support for the EU ban on growth promotants had to do with European countries’ history of embracing traditional values of livestock raising, as well as support for local and artisanal food and the heritage value of agricultural landscapes. In a phone call, she told us that while the use of hormone implants may be safe, she is very concerned about the effect of antibiotic use (more about this below).
And to conclude: The assessment that administering hormones to beef cattle is a safe practice has been endorsed by the Food and Drug Administration of the United States, Health Canada, the Codex Alimentarius Committee of the World Trade Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the European Agriculture Commission