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What Drugs Was Your Thanksgiving Turkey On?

Antibiotics and other drugs are common in the turkey that thousands of Americans eat every day.

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The undercover employee's reports of the "live hanger" culture at the House of Raeford, in which workers pulled the heads and legs off turkeys when they were stuck in crates and worse, led to Denny's suspending its business from Raeford, the nation's seventh largest turkey producer. The slaughterhouse is also infamous for a chlorine spill that killed a worker in 2003, an ammonia spill that evacuated  two towns the next year and a murdered worker in 2006.

Still, the mother of all turkey drugs is the asthma-like drug ractopamine, marketed as the "Medicated Tom Turkey Feed" Topmax. Approved for turkeys only two years ago, figures for Topmax use in turkeys are not yet available but the same drug is now used in 45 percent of U.S. pigs and 30 percent of ration-fed cattle.

There are two reasons ractopamine has raised safety questions. One is that its label reads, "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. Operators should wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. If accidental eye contact occurs, immediately rinse eyes thoroughly with water. If irritation persists, seek medical attention. The material safety data sheet contains more detailed occupational safety information. To report adverse effects, access medical information, or obtain additional product information, call 1-800-428-4441."

The other reason is that ractopamine is not withdrawn at slaughter. In fact, it is begun as the animals near slaughter and started during turkeys' last 14 days. It is actually pumping through their systems as they arrive on the killing floor.

Like antibiotics and arsenic, ractopamine is given to turkeys to make them grow faster. It is similar to clenbuterol, a performance enhancing sports drug that is banned in the US, for both humans and livestock, and elsewhere. But ractopamine is also banned in Europe, Taiwan and China, where 1,700 ractopamine "poisonings" were reported and ractopamine-produced pork was seized in 2007. (You have to worry when  China calls a food unsafe.)

Ractopamine caused actual riots in Taiwan in 2007 when 3,500 Tawainese pig farmers, some carrying pigs, threw dung and rotten eggs at police and military soldiers over the rumor that a ractopamine ban would be lifted.  "Get out, USA pork" and "We refuse to eat pork that contains poisonous ractopamine," they chanted for hours according to Taiwan News.

Reports of ractopamine's lack of safety are not hard to find.  In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) termed ractopamine a cardiac stimulator. Ractopamine residues "represent a genuine risk to consumers," wrote a medical  journal article, citing "long plasma half-lives, and relatively slow rates of elimination." And a report from Ottawa's Bureau of Veterinary Drugs says that rats fed ractopamine developed a constellation of birth defects like cleft palate, protruding tongue, short limbs, missing digits, open eyelids and enlarged heart.

The FDA is well aware of ractopamine's downside. In 2003, three years after the drug was approved for use in U.S. pigs, the FDA accused its manufacturer, Elanco, of withholding information about ractopamine's "safety and effectiveness" and "adverse animal drug experiences" in a fourteen-page warning letter.

Elanco, said the FDA, failed to report furious pig farmers phoning the company about "dying animals," "downer pigs," animals "down and shaking," "hyperactivity" and "vomiting after eating feed with Paylean," and also suppressed clinical trial information. But, thanks to same probable lobbying that reversed the cephalosporin ban, the FDA approved ractopamine for cattle the following year and for use in turkeys in 2009! Last year, the FDA enlarged the approval for cattle.

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