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Helena Bottemiller, a Washington, DC-based reporter covering food policy and politics, claims ractopamine hydrochloride, the drug designed to keep pigs lean and boost their growth, is jeopardizing US pork exports.

The FDA ruled ractopamine was safe 13 years ago, and Canada and 24 other countries have approved the drug. But ractopamine is banned in 160 nations, and countries that have banned its use cite concerns about its effect on human health.

Food and Drug Administration records reveal that the drug is fed to 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States, and has sickened or killed more of them than any other livestock drug on the market. Cattle and turkeys have also suffered high numbers of illnesses from the drug.

According to Beef magazine, the beta agonist ractopamine, a repartitioning agent that increases protein synthesis, was recruited for livestock use when researchers found the drug, used in asthma, made mice more muscular. Ractopamine relaxes blood vessels, and forces the heart to beat faster.

Two years ago, Martha Rosenberg, who frequently writes about the impact of the pharmaceutical industry on public health, noted: “But unlike the growth promoting antibiotics and hormones used in livestock which are withdrawn as the animal nears slaughter, ractopamine is started as the animal nears slaughter.”

According to author and well known veterinarian Michael W. Fox, as much as twenty percent of Paylean, given to pigs for their last 28 days, Optaflexx, given to cattle their last 28 to 42 days and Tomax, given to turkeys their last 7 to 14 days, remains in consumer meat. Residues of the drug can still be detected in animals more than a week after consumption.

That means the drug is being consumed by humans.

Bottemiller claims US residue tests for ractopamine are limited. “In 2010, for example, the U.S. did no tests on 22 billion pounds of pork; 712 samples were taken from 26 billion pounds of beef. Those results have not yet been released.”

And the Sichuan Pork Trade Chamber of Commerce claims more than 1,700 people were “poisoned” from eating Paylean-fed pigs since 1998. Bottemiller claims concern over sick animals in the nation’s food supply triggered a California law banning the sale and slaughter of livestock unable to walk, but that law was struck down by the Supreme Court Monday.

Meat producers had sued to overturn California’s ban, arguing that the state could not supersede federal rules on meat production. The court agreed.

Ractopamine Used to Boost Profits

Bottemiller explains that in animals, ractopamine revs up production of lean meat, reducing fat. Pigs fed the drug in the last weeks of their life produce an average of 10 percent more meat, compared with animals on the same amount of feed that don’t receive the drug.

As a result, profits are raised by $2 per head according to the drug’s manufacturer, Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly. The drug is sold under the brand name Paylean.

Bottemiller advises readers that U.S. trade officials are now pressing more countries to accept meat from animals raised on ractopamine — a move opposed by China and the EU.

Resolving the impasse is a top agricultural trade priority for the Obama administration, which is trying to boost exports and help revive the economy, trade officials say.

The U.S. Meat Export Federation estimates U.S. exports of beef and pork will hit $5 billion each for the first time, claiming pork exports to China quadrupled from 2005 to 2010 to $463 million but are still only 2-3 percent of the market.

“China is a potentially huge market for us,” said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. But traces of the drug have led to rejection of some U.S. meat shipments in China and Taiwan.

The EU requires U.S. exporters to certify their meat is ractopamine-free, and China requires a similar assurance for pork.

Ractopamine Killed More Pigs Than Any Other Drug

A review of FDA veterinary records shows that since the drug’s introduction, ractopamine has sickened or killed more than 218,000 pigs as of March 2011, more than any other animal drug on the market.

According to FDA reports released under a Freedom of Information Act request, pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk and death.

“I’ve personally seen people overuse the drug in hogs and cattle,” said Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University and animal welfare expert. “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.”

U.N.’s Codex Alimentarius Commission

U.S. trade officials are attempting to force the U.N.’s Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets global food-safety standards, to set a Codex standard for ractopamine to strengthen Washington’s ability to challenge other countries’ meat import bans at the World Trade Organization.

The issue has reached the last step in Codex’s approval process, but since 2008 the commission has been deadlocked over what, if any, level of ractopamine is safe in meat.

According to Bottemiller, the EU and China, which together produce and consume about 70 percent of the world’s pork, have blocked repeated efforts of U.S. trade officials to get a residue limit.

European scientists sharply questioned the science backing the drug’s safety, and Chinese officials were concerned about higher residues in organ meats, which are consumed in China.

“The main problem for us is that the safety of the product could not be supported with the data,” said Claudia Roncancio-Peña, a scientist who led the European food safety panel studying the drug.

US attempts to force ractopamine tainted pork on other countries has strained the US/Taiwan trade relationship, since Taiwan began testing for ractopamine last year, Bottemiller claims they found traces in American beef and pork and pulled meat from store shelves, according to local press reports.

Chinese Athletes Banned From Eating Pork Over Drug Concerns

According to a report in The Epoch Times, athletes across the country have been told not to eat pork for fear of being accused of using performance enhancing drugs.

And that’s a standing order even as the food consumed by athletes is segregated from the rest of the food supply chain.

A gold medal winner at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games wrote: “The General Administration of Sport in China issued an urgent order banning athletes from eating pork altogether.

Beef or lamb cannot be eaten when dining out for fear that banned substances in the meat would cause athletes to fail the drug tests. When dining out, we are only allowed to eat fish and chicken.”

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Spence Cooper
Inquisitive foodie with a professional investigative background and strong belief in the organic farm to table movement. Author of Bad Seeds: A FriendsEAT Guide to GMO's. Buy Now!
Spence Cooper