The Multinational Monitor

MAY 1989 - VOLUME 10 - NUMBER 5


K E N Y A 'S   C H A L L E N G E

The Chemical Jungle

Today's Beef Industry

by Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.

The United States is isolated among meat-exporting countries, such as Argentina and Australia, in threatening retaliatory sanctions and in accusing the European Economic Community (EEC) of unfair trade practices because of its January 1, 1989 ban of hormone-treated U.S. meat. The accusations ignore serious questions about the carcinogenic and other risks of hormonally contaminated meat that are of major concern to European consumers who, over two years ago, pressured the EEC into banning the use of all hormone additives.

Growth promoting hormone additives, fed or implanted in over 95 percent of U.S. cattle, are mostly synthetic non-steroids such as Zeranol, natural sex steroids such as estrogens, or pituitary hormones such as somatotropines. Although the carcinogenicity of the synthetic DES in test animals was known by 1938, its use as a feed additive was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1947. After repeated hearings on the hazards of diethystilbestril (DES), in 1958 Congress passed the Delaney Amendment to the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act, banning the deliberate addition of any level of carcinogens into food. This law reflected the overwhelming scientific consensus, which still prevails, that there is no way of setting safe levels or tolerances for carcinogens. Nevertheless, the USDA and the FDA allowed continued use of DES on the alleged grounds that this did not result in detectable and illegal residues in meat products, and that the Delaney law could not be applied retroactively. By 1971, DES was being used in 75 percent of U.S. cattle. In spite of infrequent federal sampling and insensitive monitoring, DES residues were found in cattle and sheep at levels in excess of those inducing cancer experimentally. At about the same time, vaginal cancers were reported in the daughters of women treated with DES during pregnancy. Based on these findings, DES-treated meat was banned in more than 20 foreign countries, mostly European. However, misleading assurances of safety and stonewalling by the FDA and USDA, including the deliberate suppression of residue data, managed to delay a U.S. ban on DES until 1979.

The meat industry then promptly switched to other carcinogenic additives, particularly natural sex hormones, which are implanted in the ears of commercially raised feedlot cattle. Unlike the synthetic DES, whose residues can be monitored and whose use was conditional on a seven day pre-slaughter withdrawal period, residues of natural hormones are not routinely detectable because they cannot be differentiated from the same hormones produced by the body. Since 1983, the FDA has allowed virtually unregulated use of these natural additives right up to the time of slaughter, subject only to the non- enforceable requirement that residue levels in meat must be less than 1 percent of the daily hormonal production of children.

A dramatic warning of the dangers of growth-promoting additives was triggered by an epidemic of premature sexual development and ovarian cysts involving about 3,000 Puerto Rican infants and children from 1979 to 1981. These toxic effects were traced to hormonal contamination of fresh meat products, and were usually reversed by simple dietary changes. Using highly specialized research techniques, independent testing found that samples of the meat products were contaminated with estrogen residues more than ten-fold in excess of normal ranges. Additionally, elevated estrogen levels and the synthetic Zeranol were found in the blood of afflicted children. Increased rates of uterine and ovarian cancers in adult women were also associated with this epidemic.

More than a decade ago, Roy Hertz, then director of endocrinology of the National Cancer Institute and a world authority on hormonal cancer, warned of the carcinogenic risks of estrogenic feed additives, particularly for hormonally sensitive tissues such as breast tissue, because they could increase normal body hormonal levels and disturb delicately poised hormonal balances. Hertz pointed to evidence in innumerable animal tests and human clinical experience that such imbalance can be carcinogenic. Hertz also warned of the essentially uncontrolled and unregulated use of these extremely potent biological agents, no dietary levels of which could be regarded as safe. Even a dime-sized piece of meat contains billions of trillions of molecules of these carcinogens.

Virtually the entire U.S. population consumes, with-out any warning, labelling or information, unknown and unpredictable amounts of hormonal residues in meat products over their lifetimes. In 1986, as many as half of all cattle sampled in feed lots as large as 600 animals, were found to have hormones illegally implanted in muscle rather than the ear skin, to provide further increased growth. This resulted in very high meat residues which even the FDA admitted could produce "adverse effects." Left unanswered is whether such chronic and uncontrolled estrogen dosages are involved in increasing cancer rates (now striking one in three Americans), particularly the alarming 50 percent increase in the incidence of breast cancer since 1965. These questions are of further concern in light of recent evidence confirming the association between breast cancer and oral contraceptives, whose estrogen dosage over a fraction of a lifetime is known and controlled, in contrast with that from residues of growth hormones in meat products.

Hormonal feed contamination in America is only part of a much larger problem caused by the use of thousands of feed additives. These include antibiotics, tranquilizers, Beef in a packing plan pesticides, animal drugs, artificial flavors and industrial wastes, many of which are carcinogenic in addition to their other harmful effects. The runaway technologies of the meat- product and pharmaceutical industries are supported by an eager cadre of academic consultants, contractees and apologists, tremendous lobbying pressures and a revolving door between senior personnel in industry and regulatory agencies. This was personified by Reagan Administration agriculture secretaries John Block, a former Illinois hog farmer, and Richard Lyng, a for mer head of the American Meat Institute.

As clearly evidenced in a series of Government Accounting Office investigations and Congressional hearings, USDA inspection and FDA registration and residue-tolerance programs are in near total disarray, aggravated by brazen denials and cover-ups by these agencies. A January 1986 report, "Human Food Safety and the Regulation of Animal Drugs," unanimously approved by the House Committee on Government Operations, concluded that the "FDA has consistently disregarded its responsibility—has repeatedly put what it perceives are interests of veterinarians and the livestock industry ahead of its legal obligation to protect consumers—jeopardizing the health and safety of consumers of meat, milk and poultry." The great majority of feed additives are used in the absence of evidence of efficacy, practical and sensitive monitoring methods and minimal if any safety test data, apart from the widespread use of illegal and unapproved drugs. The hazards of U.S. meat have retrogressed from the random fecal and bacterial contamination of Upton Sinclair's Jungle to the brave new world of deliberate chemicalization.

Any possible trade basis for the EEC embargo is extremely unlikely, particularly in view of tough regulations and criminal sanctions against use of hormonal additives in European beef. Contrary to repeated assertions by the U.S. meat industry, the EEC's 1985 Scientific Risk Assessment Committee did not exculpate the use of hormonal additives, but recommended against the use of a synthetics and emphasized the need to further evaluate the safety of natural hormones. Rather than finger-pointing at Europe, the embargo should prompt a high-level, independent investigation and a drastic reform of meat industry practices and federal regulation to include the use of hormones in particular ticular and feed additives in general. Immediate action, not further study, is well overdue. The U.S. position also reflects a disturbing double standard, since the adminstration banned imports of Australian beef in 1987 on the grounds of excess residues of the carcinogenic pesticide heptachlor.

All hormonal and other carcinogenic feed additives should be banned immediately, as should be all other animal additives in the absence of conclusive evidence of their efficacy and safety. Any additive use should be subject to explicit labeling requirements of use and of residue levels in all meat products, including milk and eggs.

Until then, initiatives at the state level, such as State Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower's "Texas Plan" to establish a hormone-free certification program for shipments to Europe, should be applauded and vigorously extended to the domestic market. Meanwhile, consumers should avoid chemicalized meat products in favor of organic ones. Consumers should also insist on their absolute right to know which additives have been used in their meat products, their residue levels and their known adverse effects. Finally, they should demand independent certification and verification for hormones and other feed additives, such as the California Nutri-Clean program for testing pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables that is now available in about 600 supermarkets nationwide.


Samuel S. Epstein, M.D. is professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the School of Public Health, University of Illinois Medical Center, Chicago. He is the author of The Politics of Cancer and co-author of Hazardous Waste in America. (C) Samuel S. Epstein.


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