Beefed Up

A scientist and an environmentalist debate the effectiveness and health risks of antibiotics and growth hormones in the beef industry.

Pro: Jason K. Ahola

Growth-promoting hormones have been a safe and effective way to produce more pounds of beef with fewer resources (e.g. land and feed) since 1954. According to several published studies, their use in feedlot cattle improves rate of weight gain (up to 10–20 percent), enhances feed efficiency (up to 15 percent), and reduces fat deposition (up to 8 percent). These improvements result in a more efficient, lower cost (including cost of beef to consumers), and more profitable beef production industry for cattle producers.

Growth-promoting hormones are administered to cattle via a small pellet (called an “implant”) that primarily contains estrogenic or androgenic hormones. These hormones cause the synthesis of more (and breakdown of less) protein, i.e. muscle. And prior to use, implants must be approved via a strict science-based regulatory review process, for which the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates animal health and human food safety. Also, U.S. beef packing plants must use in-house monitoring programs to test for the presence of growth “promotant” residues. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) compares additional carcass residue testing to the safe levels established by the FDA. In 2009, FSIS published an online report indicating zero residue violations for growth promotants in beef cattle.

Several organizations throughout the world have confirmed that the proper use of growth-promoting hormones in cattle pose no health or safety risk to humans that consume beef. According to a comprehensive review published by Oklahoma State University, some of these groups include the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, Codex Alimentarius, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Jason K. Ahola is associate professor, Beef Management Systems, Colorado State University.

Con: Gavin Ehringer

Livestock consume more than 70 percent of all antibiotics consumed in America, according to the FDA. However, FDA research dating as far back as the 1970s indicates that harmful antibiotic-resistant bacteria thrive because of large, animal feeding operations. As a result, antibiotics for medical use in humans are becoming less effective. Society pays a heavy cost to treat diseases caused by so-called “super bugs,” including infections due to longer hospital stays and more intensive treatments—an estimated $35 billion a year. According to the Centers for Disease Control, antibiotic-resistant diseases cause tens of thousands of premature deaths annually in the U.S.

The main justification for non-therapeutic use of antibiotics is to keep meat prices low. But according to National Research Council calculations, the cost benefit is marginal; their use adds a mere 3–6 cents per pound at grocery stores. Meanwhile, cattlemen that join certified natural and USDA organic beef programs can earn higher prices per pound, often offsetting gains made by commercial feedlot producers. And though synthetic hormones and other enhancers can raise the profit on the average beef carcass by a hundred dollars or more, the tradeoff (besides tougher meat) is the introduction of synthetic hormones into our food and water supplies. Carlos Sonnenschein of the Tufts University School of Medicine has linked these synthetic hormones to faster maturation of girls, who now reach puberty a full two-and-a-half years younger than they did a century ago. Canada already bans the low-level use of antibiotics in cattle, and the European Union bans both antibiotics and hormones in their herds. The cheap meat in America may be paid for by a high price to our health.

Gavin Ehringer is writing a book on the history of domisticated animals.

Readers’ Poll

Pro 24%

Con 76%