Many Americans believe the US is at the forefront of technology and advancements to protect its citizens’ health. But, time and again we’re seeing that Americans are actually less healthy than their peers overseas.
In fact, despite spending twice the amount per capita on health care, the US recently ranked last in a health and mortality analysis of 17 developed nations.1
In many cases, adhering to government-sponsored health and dietary guidance has led Americans astray but so, too, has exposure to harmful substances and practices that continue to receive the “green light” in the US while being banned in Europe.
Thanks to a largely industry-beholden government and regulatory system, Americans are simply not being afforded the same protections given to Europeans.
Mother Jones recently highlighted seven dodgy practices banned in Europe but allowed in the US,2 and I added in a couple of my own. In terms of looking out for your safety, this list gives an eye-opening perspective on where US regulatory agencies’ true interests lie.
Banned in Europe in 2003, Syngenta's weed killer Atrazine is a potent endocrine disruptor that, according to UC Berkeley Professor Tyrone Hayes, “chemically castrates and feminizes wildlife and reduces immune function in both wildlife and laboratory rodents.” The chemical has also been found to induce breast and prostate cancer, retard mammary development and induce spontaneous abortion in lab animals, with studies in humans suggesting similar risks.
In the US, Atrazine is widely used and has become a common drinking water contaminant. Syngenta already had to pay $105 million to settle a class-action lawsuit in which water utilities in the Midwest claimed Atrazine had contaminated their drinking water.3
Atrazine has been banned in the European Union—including Switzerland, where it's manufactured—as well as several Wisconsin counties in the US. However, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) still allows its use and is only going to begin conducting a registration review, “EPA’s periodic reevaluation program for existing pesticides,” in mid-2013.4
2. Arsenic in Chicken, Turkey and Pig Feed
Arsenic-based drugs are approved for use in animal feed in the US because they make animals grow quicker and make the meat appear pinker (i.e. "fresher"). The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated these products are safe because they contain organic arsenic, which is less toxic than the other inorganic form, which is a known carcinogen.
The problem is, scientific reports surfaced stating that the organic arsenic could transform into inorganic arsenic, which has been found in elevated levels in supermarket chickens. The inorganic arsenic also contaminates manure where it can eventually migrate into drinking water and may also be causing heightened arsenic levels in US rice.
In 2011, Pfizer announced it would voluntarily stop marketing its arsenic-based feed additive Roxarsone, but there are still several others on the market. Several environmental groups have filed a lawsuit against the FDA calling for their removal from the market. In the European Union, meanwhile, arsenic-based compounds have never been approved as safe for animal feed.
3. Poultry Litter in Cow Feed
Chicken litter, a rendered down mix of chicken manure, dead chickens, feathers and spilled feed, is marketed as a cheap feed product for cows. The beef industry likes it because it's even cheaper than corn and soy, so an estimated 2 BILLION pounds are purchased each year in the US.
However, any cow that eats chicken litter may also be consuming various beef products intended for chickens – raising concerns about Mad Cow Disease. And it's not only the spilled feed that's the problem; the infectious agent can also be passed through the chicken manure as well. In the US, the use of poultry litter in cow feed is unrestricted. Europe banned all forms of animal protein, including chicken litter, in cow feed in 2001.
4. Chlorine Washes for Poultry Carcasses
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is rolling out new rules that would permit poultry producers to put all the poultry through an antimicrobial wash, using chlorine and other chemicals to kill pathogens. We already have a problem with antibiotics causing antibiotic-resistant ”super germs” when used in the animals’ feed, and this could likely make the problem even worse.
Workers in the plants have also reported health problems from the chemical washes, including asthma and other respiratory problems. In the European Union, the use of chlorine washes is not only banned, but they won’t even accept US poultry that’s been treated with these antimicrobial sprays.
5. Antibiotics as Growth Promoters on Livestock Farms
Agricultural uses account for about 80 percent of all antibiotic use in the US, so it's a MAJOR source of human antibiotic consumption. Animals are often fed antibiotics at low doses for disease prevention and growth promotion, and those antibiotics are transferred to you via meat, and even via the manure used as crop fertilizer. Feeding livestock continuous, low-dose antibiotics creates a perfect storm for widespread disease proliferation -- and, worse yet, antibiotic-resistant disease.
The FDA has long held -- since 1977 in fact -- that administering low doses of antibiotics to livestock, as is common among Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), was inappropriate, yet they continue to pander to the drug industry and are allowing the practice to continue.
The FDA says it will focus its efforts on voluntary reform in the realm of antimicrobial use, which means the industry would have to decide to stop using low-dose antibiotics in animal feed on their own -- a measure they have been vehemently opposed to because the antibiotics make the animals grow faster, which increases their profit margins. In Europe, all antibiotics used in human medicine are banned in agriculture, and no antibiotics can be used for growth-promoting purposes.
6. Ractopomine and Other Pharmaceutical Growth Enhancers in Animal Feed
Ractopamine is banned in 160 countries, including Europe, Taiwan and China. If imported meat is found to contain traces of the drug, it is turned away, while fines and imprisonment result for its use in banned countries. Yet, in the United States an estimated 60-80 percent of pigs, 30 percent of ration-fed cattle, and an unknown percentage of turkeys are pumped full of this drug in the days leading up to slaughter because it increases protein synthesis.
In other words, it makes animals more muscular… and this increases food growers’ bottom line. Adding insult to injury, up to 20 percent of ractopamine remains in the meat you buy from the supermarket, and this drug is also known to cause serious disability, including trembling, broken limbs and an inability to walk, in animals.
It’s also killed more pigs than any other animal drug on the market. While Europe has remained steadfast on its Ractopamine ban, including refusing imported meat treated with it, the US is actively trying to get other nations to change their minds and accept Ractopamine-treated pork.
7. Gestation Crates
Gestation crates are two-foot-wide cages where breeding pigs spend nearly their entire lives, unable to even turn around. Commonly used on CAFOs, the crates are the definition of inhumane and cause severe stress to the animals, who in some cases will resort to chewing the bars of the cages incessantly, causing them become covered in blood.
While several US pork producers, including Smithfield, Cargill and Hormel, have pledged to phase the crates out, and fast-food chains including McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s and Subway have promised to stop buying from pork producers who use them, the practice remains widespread in the US. Europe, however, banned gestation crates entirely, effective this year.
8. Water Fluoridation
Many do not realize that fluoride is a drug that is available only with a prescription. Yet it's added to municipal water supplies used by more than 180 million Americans, including infants and the elderly without any attention to personalized dosing or potential interactions.
Swallowing fluoride has been shown to cause weakened bones, bone cancer, hyperactivity and/or lethargy, lowered thyroid function, lowered IQ, dementia, kidney issue, arthritis and more, while studies have failed to show benefits for preventing cavities when taken internally. Cities around the US spend millions adding fluoride to communal water supplies each year, yet most European countries do not fluoridate their water.
9. Genetically Modified (GM) Foods
The European Union has historically taken a strict, cautious stance regarding GM crops, much to the chagrin of biotech giant Monsanto and in stark contract to the US. For instance, while GM crops are banned in several European countries, and all genetically modified foods and ingredients have to be labeled, the US has recently begun passing legislation that protects the use of GM seeds and allows for unabated expansion, in addition to the fact that GM ingredients do not have to be labeled.
Virtually all of the claims of benefit of GM crops – increased yields, more food production, controlled pests and weeds, reductions in chemical use in agriculture, drought-tolerant seeds -- have not materialized while evidence pointing to their serious risks for human health and the environment continues to grow.
The list above is only a partial one. There are, unfortunately, many other examples where the US has sold out to industry at the expense of its citizens’ health, while other countries have chosen to take a much more precautionary or ethical stance. For instance, food additives banned in other countries yet allowed in the US include various food dyes, the fat substitute Olestra, brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate (aka brominanted flour), Azodicarbonamide, BHA, BHT, rBGH and rBST. Europe has also recently banned animal testing for cosmetics and personal hygiene products, a practice that is still allowed in the US.
If you want to avoid these questionable ingredients, additives and unethical practices and you live in the US, ditching processed foods entirely is the best option. If you live in Europe, you may have more options than Americans, as you may be able to find some processed foods that do not contain any synthetic additives (although non-processed is still highly preferable). About 90 percent of the money Americans spend on food is spent on processed foods, so there is massive room for improvement in this area for most people.
Swapping your processed-food diet for one that focuses on fresh whole foods is a necessity if you value your health. For a step-by-step guide to make this a reality in your own life, whether you live in the US or elsewhere, simply follow the advice in my optimized nutrition plan, starting with the beginner plan first.