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Ractopamine: The Meat Additive on Your Plate That's Banned Almost Everywhere But America

The asthma drug-like growth additive has enjoyed stealth use in the US food supply for a decade despite being widely banned overseas.

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The US calls anti-ractopamine restrictions unscientific and unwarranted while its balking partners call the use of ractopamine unscientific and unwarranted. "China says it’s worried about the higher levels of drug residues that can be found in pig organs, which are part of a traditional Chinese diet, and Russia claims the drug could pose health risks," reports  Food Safety News.

In 2007 more than 3,500 pig farmers in Taiwan rioted because of rumor that a ractopamine ban would be lifted. Demonstrators, some carrying pigs, threw rotten eggs and dung at people and buildings chanting, "Get out, USA pork" and "We refuse to eat pork that contains poisonous ractopamine," reported  Taiwan News. After Hou Sheng-Mou, the department of health minister, assured the crowd the ban was still in place and touched a piglet, for unclear reasons, the crowd left.

Last year, the riots were repeated replete with eggs and dung when newly re-elected President Ma Ying-jeou reversed the 2007 assurances and proposed that  the ractopamine ban be lifted with products labeled accordingly. Taiwan hog farmers fear "lifting the ban could spark widespread health concerns that would affect consumption of other meat products, undermining their livelihoods," reported the Associated Press.

The sale of Smithfield foods to Shuanghui International this year, China's  biggest takeover of a US company, also has implications for ractopamine. Smithfield is converting it hog plants to "ractopamine-free" animals and announced that by last June its operations would be 50 percent ractopamine-free to please the Chinese markets. (Shuanghui is not guilt-free when it comes to beta-agonists--it was  forced to recall its Shineway brand meat products because of clenbuterol fears.)

Penny Wise and Pound Cruel

Why is ractopamine fed to animals? Why are antibiotics, hormones and arsenic fed to animals in the US? Ractopamine is a growth enhancer and livestock operations make more money with less feed.

Optaflexx "served up 17 lbs. more live weight, 14 lbs. more carcass weight, 0.3 sq. in. more ribeye area, and 0.3% more dressing percent when fed according to label directions," extolled  Beef magazine said in 2005. Ractopamine wasn't implemented until cattle growers were assured that it "wouldn't dilute quality grades" and didn't cause "altered animal behavior," assured the magazine.

Both assurances were premature. Ractopamine has caused more harm to pigs  than any other drug. FDA reports link it to a startling string of conditions in cattle and pigs like respiratory disorders, hoof disorders, bloat, abnormal lameness and leg disorders, hyperactivity, stiffness, aggression, stress, recumbency (inability to get up) and death. Even the animal expert Temple Grandin has spoken out. "I've personally seen people overuse the drug in hogs and cattle," she said and "the pigs were so weak  they couldn't walk." Ractopamine causes such hoof damage, hooves have actually fallen off reports  Countryside magazine--a phenomenon  Grandin reports with the similar drug zilpateral (Zilmax).

And meat quality? Turkey meat produced with ractopamine has "alterations" in muscle such as a "mononuclear cell infiltrate and myofiber degeneration," say a 2008  new drug application from Elanco, ractopamine's manufacturer. There was "an increase in the incidence of cysts," and differences, some "significant," in the weight of organs like hearts, kidneys and livers. ("Enlarged hearts" had been in rats in the  Canadian studies.) Happy Thanksgiving.

Spin Jobs

When a food additive no one knew they were eating comes under scientific scrutiny, Big Food and Big Pharma create an It's Innocuous fact sheet. Meat turns brown just like an apple says a fact sheet from the  American Meat Institute defending the use of carbon monoxide to keep meat red. “People would be more likely to die from a bee sting than for their antibiotic treatment to fail because of macrolide-resistant bacteria in meat or poultry," says a brochure from the  Animal Health Institute defending antibiotics in meat.

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