Drugged Diets and Pig Pollution

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Ractopamine causes pigs to gain more muscle and put on weight rapidly, but it’s linked to health concerns in humans and farm animals
  • North Carolina environmental groups filed a complaint with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) alleging that pig farms are polluting the environment and putting the health of nearby minorities at risk
  • A newly proposed pig farm in Bayfield, Wisconsin has been met with fierce backlash from residents, who fear the CAFO will ruin the environment and pose a threat to the Lake Superior watershed

By Dr. Mercola

In the US, federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in raising pigs for pork.1 In fact, if a hog farmer wants to claim "no hormones added" on its pork labels, it must be followed by the statement that the use of hormones is prohibited by federal regulations.

The drug ractopamine, a beta-agonist growth promotant, is allowed, however, and that's essentially the same thing. Ractopamine is similar to adrenaline in that it causes pigs to gain more muscle (and less fat) and put on weight rapidly.

The drug, which was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in pigs in 1999, may add $2 to $3 in extra income per pig due to its ability to make pigs heavier, faster.2

As such, it's widely used by conventional (concentrated animal feeding operation, or CAFO) pig farmers. By some estimates, this controversial drug is used in as many as 80 percent of all US pig operations.3 It's also used in cattle and turkey farming.

But don't let the pervasiveness of its use give you a false sense of safety. While many Americans are unaware that the drug is even used (it doesn't have to be labeled, so how would they?).

Ractopamine is banned from food production in at least 160 other countries, including countries across Europe, Russia, mainland China, and Republic of China (Taiwan), due to its suspected health effects.

Ractopamine Linked to Birth Defects, Reproductive Problems, and Cardiovascular Effects

There's good reason to be wary about eating meat that contains ractopamine. The UN food standards body, Codex, reportedly based their assessment of ractopamine "safety" on one human study that included six people – one of whom dropped out due to adverse effects.4

In humans, beta-agonist drugs are used to treat asthma and heart failure. They work by mimicking stress hormones in your body, causing your heart rate to increase and your blood vessels to relax.

The drugs clenbuterol and zilpaterol, which are similar in action to ractopamine, are banned for use by Olympic athletes, while a study on monkeys showed those given ractopamine daily developed rapid heart beat and birth defects, including short limbs, missing digits, open eyelids, and enlarged heart.5

And according to the Center for Food Safety (CFS):6

"Data from the European Food Safety Authority indicates that ractopamine causes elevated heart rates and heart-pounding sensations in humans."

There is even a warning on the drug's label that people with heart disease should take extra precautions to avoid exposure, and anyone using it must use protective clothing and eye gear:7

"WARNING: The active ingredient in Topmax, ractopamine hydrochloride, is a beta-adrenergic agonist. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure… Not for use in humans. Keep out of the reach of children.

The Topmax 9 formulation (Type A Medicated Article) poses a low dust potential under usual conditions of handling and mixing. When mixing and handling Topmax, use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask."

Ractopamine is also known to affect the human cardiovascular system and is thought to be responsible for hyperactivity. It may also cause chromosomal abnormalities and behavioral changes. And as written in the journal Talanta:8

"The use of highly active beta-agonists as growth promoters is not appropriate because of the potential hazard for human and animal health."

Ractopamine May Lead to More Animal Suffering

An FDA investigation found ractopamine resulted in more reports of sickened or dead pigs than any other livestock drug on the market.9 From 1999 to 2011, the FDA found more than 160,000 pigs taking the drug suffered from adverse effects, including hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk, and death.

Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University and animal welfare expert, told The Fern:10

"I've personally seen people overuse the drug in hogs and cattle… I was in a plant once where they used too much ractopamine and the pigs were so weak they couldn't walk. They had five or six people just dedicated to handling the lame pigs."

Worse still, ractopamine is administered in the days leading up to slaughter, and as much as 20 percent of it can remain in the meat you buy.

While other drugs require a clearance period of around two weeks to help ensure the compounds are flushed from the meat prior to slaughter (and therefore reduce residues leftover for human consumption), there is no clearance period for ractopamine. Testing for residues is also limited. In 2010, for instance, no federal testing was done to detect ractopamine residues in 22 billion pounds of pork.

USDA Grants 'No Ractopamine' Label to Pasture-Raised Pork Farmer

David Maren, founder of Tendergrass Farms, raises pigs all naturally, on pasture, without ractopamine. In 2014, he drafted a label to let consumers known that his pigs are not fed ractopamine, but the USDA originally refused to approve it. As noted by NPR:11

"[Maren] drew up a new label containing these words: 'Our pigs are never fed beta-agonists (like Ractopamine) — drugs widely used as artificial growth promotants in the pork industry today.' Meat labels have to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though, which is supposed to make sure that labels are not false or misleading. 

The USDA refused to approve Maren's proposed label. Officials at the USDA advised Maren to modify the label to say instead that 'our animals are never fed growth promotants,' and to include an additional statement that 'federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in pork.'"

This, however, is misleading, since it sounds as though Maren's pork is the same as all the rest, when it actually carries a definite distinction in being ractopamine-free. He persisted and submitted a new proposal that reads the pork is made with "no ractopamine – a beta-agonist growth promotant," and this time the USDA approved it.

This label, thought to be the first of its kind in the US, may start putting pressure on conventional pig farmers to abandon the drug. Already, countries such as China and Russia are demanding that any US meat imports be ractopamine-free. Chipotle restaurants, meat producer Niman Ranch, and Whole Foods Markets also avoid pork products that have been fed ractopamine.12

North Carolina Environmental Groups Issue Legal Complaint to EPA Over Pig Pollution

In September 2014, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, the Waterkeeper Alliance, and other groups filed a complaint with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). They alleged that hog farms are polluting the air and water, and putting the health of nearby minorities at risk.

The EPA was supposed to respond to the complaint by mid-August, but it appears the deadline has been missed. At issue are some of the state's hog farms, which treat animal feces in open-air lagoons and dispose of the waste by spraying it onto nearby fields. The creation of new lagoons and the spray systems, were banned in 2007, but older farms were allowed to continue their use.

Further, the complaint alleges that the CAFOs disproportionately affect racial minorities, many of whom live in the eastern part of the state where the pig farms are concentrated. North Carolina Health News reported:13

"In their complaint to the EPA, the groups say that DENR [North Carolina Department of Natural Resources] has effectively ignored residents' complaints for years by continuing to permit farms that use lagoon and spray systems. That's why the environmentalists turned to the EPA. Under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, state agencies that receive federal funds, such as DENR, cannot act in a racially discriminatory way.

It's possible the EPA may not find that DENR intentionally discriminated against minorities. But it may not matter, because if the EPA finds that DENR's actions had the effect of discrimination, the EPA could rule that DENR is in violation of federal law, according to a guide from the Department of Justice.

… For DENR, a loss of funding could be significant. In its 2013-14 budget, DENR received $111.2 million from the EPA, roughly 16 percent of its full $701.2 million budget. Of course, such an action will require that the EPA finish its investigation."

Wisconsin Residents Fight Back Against Newly Proposed Pig Farm

Iowa-based Reicks View Farms has submitted a proposal to build a pig CAFO in Bayfield, Wisconsin, in the Lake Superior watershed region. The large-scale facility would hold 26,000 pigs and produce up to 10 million gallons of pig manure a year, which is to be spread on nearby agricultural land.

Although Wisconsin is already home to 272 CAFOs, the newly proposed pig farm has been met with fierce backlash from residents, who fear the CAFO will ruin the environment and pose a threat to the Lake Superior watershed. According to the Star Tribune:14

"… [T]he number of big feedlots in Wisconsin has been growing steadily since 2000, and they are increasingly controversial — especially near Green Bay. There, runoff from manure and other fertilizers has contributed to a major dead zone in the bay and contaminated some local wells.

An administrative law judge said last year that a 'massive regulatory failure' had led to groundwater contamination in the area and ordered the Wisconsin DNR to act, a case that has convinced many communities around Lake Superior that the state is not going to protect their bay…

Local residents also fear their countryside is not suitable for intensive farming. 'I can't imagine a more inappropriate place' for a large livestock operation, said Gordon Stevenson, who ran the Wisconsin DNR's agricultural runoff program before his retirement. He is now an outspoken critic of his former employer and the state's environmental policies."

Why Most People Don't Want to Live Anywhere Near a Pig CAFO…

Living in the nearby vicinity to one is akin to living next to a landfill or a chemical factory, maybe even worse. It's not unusual for people to report the fumes coming from the CAFOs are so bad they can't make it from their house to their car without stopping to retch. This isn't only a matter of bad odor, though; it's a serious health threat. As reported in a literature review from the National Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production:15

"Ammonia emissions from hog farms react with other gases in the air to form fine particle pollution, a public health threat linked to decreased lung function, cardiovascular ailments, and most seriously, premature death… Air emissions from lagoons, sprayfields, and hog houses have been linked to neurological and respiratory problemsSubjects in a controlled exposure chamber who were exposed to air from hog operations for one hour reported headaches, eye irritation, and nausea…

Unpleasant odors have been found to be a nuisance and emotional stressor on neighbors and are known to contain irritants that can cause damage to mucosal linings in the nose, throat and respiratory tract… Researchers from the UNC School of Public Health and Duke University found that neighbors exposed to odors from hog operations showed evidence of reduced immune system function… Evidence is also emerging that indicates that the health of citizens living near hog operations is negatively affected.

Research in Iowa and North Carolina showed that neighbors living within three miles of hog operations experience elevated levels of respiratory complaints relative to those living near other animal production operations or crop production… Abhorrent odors can be exacerbated by the smell and sight of rotting flesh from hog carcasses that are often stored in 'dead boxes' close to neighbors' property lines. 'Dead trucks' that transport hog carcasses to rendering facilities also emit odor.

… There are also concerns about the exposure of workers or neighbors to antibiotics in the dust generated in the hog confinement facilities, which are vented to the outdoors. … A North Carolina study of 58,169 children found a 23 percent higher prevalence of asthma symptoms among students attending schools where staff noticed livestock odors indoors twice a month or more."

CAFO Pork May Be a Source of Drug-Resistant Bacteria

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is in fact linked to food,16 but a more accurate statement might be linked to food from CAFOs. Take Klebsiella pneumonia, a bacteria that can lead to pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound and surgical site infections, and meningitis.

are often found in the human intestinal tract, where they are normally harmless. But if your immune system is compromised and you get exposed to an especially virulent drug-resistant form of Klebsiella, the consequences to you can be deadly.

It wasn't thought to be transmitted via food… until now. New research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases showed that turkey, chicken, and pork sold in US grocery stores may contain Klebsiella pneumonia.17 In fact, 47 percent of samples tested contained the bacteria, which was, in some cases, nearly identical to strains found in people with Klebsiella pneumonia infections during the same time period.

Victory: Judge Rules Idaho 'Ag-Gag' Law Unconstitutional

One of the reasons so few Americans are aware of these issues is because of "ag-gag" laws, which legally prevents people from filming or photographing conditions on factory farms. Ag-gag laws are being heavily promoted by lobbyists for the meat, egg, and dairy industries to essentially prevent anyone from exposing animal cruelty and food-safety issues at CAFOs. Montano, Utah, North Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa already have such laws in place preventing people from taking photos or videos of CAFOs.

Fortunately, in Idaho a judge recently struck down the state's ag-gag law, declaring it unconstitutional and citing First Amendment protections for free speech. The decision could change the fate of existing laws, whose days may now be numbered. NPR reported:18

"'This is a total victory on our two central constitutional claims,' says University of Denver law professor Justin Marceau, who represented the plaintiff, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, in the case. 'Ag-gag laws violate the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause. This means that these laws all over the country are in real danger.'"

And, as Jill Richardson, a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board, told Truthout:19

"While most mature US cattle may lack the liberty they once had to graze on grass, the freedom of speech is still guaranteed for human beings, at least in Idaho… If Big Ag wants activists to stop documenting animal cruelty, then factory farm owners should stop practicing it."

How to Find Drug-Free, Humanely Raised Meat…

Naturally raised, pastured meat, and preferably organic, is virtually the only type of meat that is healthy to eat, in my view. Fortunately, many grocery chains are now responding to customer demand, and will provide at least a small assortment of grass-fed meats. The least expensive way to obtain grass-fed beef and other locally produced organic foods, however, is from your local farmer. The following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods in your local area that has been raised in a humane, sustainable manner:

  • Local Harvest – This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  • Eat Wild– With more than 1,400 pasture-based farms, Eat Wild's Directory of Farms is one of the most comprehensive sources for grass-fed meat and dairy products in the United States and Canada.
  • Farmers' Markets – A national listing of farmers' markets.
  • Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals – The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  • FoodRoutes – The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs, and markets near you.
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