Having Agony Over the Agonists? Perspective from a Former USDA Food Safety Official

RaymondBy Richard Raymond, M.D., former Undersecretary for Food Safety, U.S. Department of Agriculture

This is a topic of discussion within the beef industry. The following article does not represent the opinion of the Beef Checkoff or the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

With beta-agonists being in the news lately, I find myself frequently being asked questions about these animal feed ingredients and why they’re used in raising some livestock today.  Beta-agonists have been used in US swine production since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval in1999 and in US cattle production since 2003. Approval for use in turkey production has followed, but is not used as widely as in cattle and swine.

Beta-agonists have been approved for use in finishing animals raised for food in more than two dozen countries, many of them major producers of red meat to feed a hungry world.

Beta-agonists promote heavier, leaner carcasses, providing less expensive meat and healthier choices.

It is estimated that beta-agonists used as feed ingredients at targeted points in the life cycle of animals raised for food increase pork yields by about 6-7 pounds per pig, and increase beef yields by an estimated additional 30 pounds of lean meat per cow.

If only half of the 24 million head of cattle harvested annually, a conservative estimate to be sure, yielded an additional 30 pounds of meat, this would provide 360 million more pounds of lean beef during a time when drought and high grain prices are forcing a reduction in the size of the American cattle herd. That would equate to 1.4 billion additional quarter pounders to help feed the world’s children, too many of whom go to bed hungry every night.

It is also estimated that over 700 million pigs have been supplemented with beta-agonists since its approval 14 years ago. I am not an Ag Economist, but I can do the simple math that says if each of those 700 million pigs produced an additional 6 pounds because of beta-agonist supplementation, that would be over 4 billion additional pounds of pork, or put another way, an additional 16 billion four ounce servings of protein.

As the former Undersecretary for Food Safety at USDA, I also know that in those billions of servings of pork and beef, not one single incident of a foodborne illness or side effect in a human has been reported. That should make us feel confident as far as human safety goes.

So, why are beta-agonists used in animals raised for food of no significance to our health? There are multiple reasons.

First and foremost, these compounds have a very short half-life, meaning the animal’s organs break down, metabolize and excrete them very quickly. They are not, for the most part, ever detected in meat sampled by the USDA.And when the rare positive does pop up, it is far below the Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) established for human safety by the FDA n and by the international Codex Alimentarius Commission.

Secondly, beta-agonists have been used and studied in human medicine for decades. In human medicine, their route to the intended smooth muscle tissue is a direct entry into the cardio-pulmonary system in some of our most vulnerable patients.

Young children inhale beta-agonists directly into their lungs to relax the smooth muscle that is constricting their airways during an asthma attack which leaves them fighting for air. Beta-agonists are life savers.

Pregnant women in premature labor have beta-agonists injected directly into their blood through IVs, to relax the smooth muscle of the uterus to prevent a premature birth. Once again, Beta-agonists are life savers.

If we give them in significant doses to our most vulnerable patients, including young children, pregnant women and their unborn babies, most people would agree then that it is safe to consume meat from animals supplemented with beta-agonists when it is basically undetectable.

As two billion more residents of the planet Earth enter the middle class and seek increasing amounts of protein, we can only supply safe, affordable food through technology. We won’t have more land, water or feed.

I believe that people should be able to have choices when it comes to food. I have no problem with people having food choices such as organic, cage free, antibiotic free, hormone free, etc. If they can afford to pay more for more expensive production methods, more power to them. However, I also believe that we should not reduce the use of safe, proven technologies—this would ultimately result in increasing costs from farm to form, meaning higher priced meat to the consumer and subsequently limit choice for those with a less disposable income.

It is a common myth floating out there in the media that 160 countries have banned the use of beta-agonists in animals raised for food. In fact, the Codex Alimentarius Commission is a joint effort of the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, two subdivisions of the United Nations. Codex is comprised of over 180 countries, and is charged with establishing, among other things, MRLs for food additives and veterinary drugs.

Last July, the annual Codex meeting voted on MRLs for ractopamine, one of the beta-agonists used to promote heavier, leaner carcasses in animals raised for food. The majority approved the recommendations from the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives. How can we still think there are another 160 countries out there “banning” beta-agonists?

Some countries, such as the European Union and China, do have restrictions on beta-agonists due to prior illegal use of beta-agonists such as clenbuterol, which has a much longer half-life and has caused human illness because of high residues in muscle meats.

But the lack of a registration, or approval of the sales of a drug for use in animals, does not equate to a ban. For many countries, a registration has never been sought, and they have no ban in place.  The reason many have not sought registration is simply that they have no animal agriculture industry in place to use such technologies.

US beef and pork were exported to more than 100 countries in 2012 with no restrictions against beta-agonist use.

As a former “top food safety official in the US,” I see no reason, personally, to pay more for food based on how it was raised. I do not fear for my health, nor do I fear for the health of my Grandkids when they come to Granddad’s house for a sleep over and eat the less expensive meats I buy at my mainstream grocery. I feel confident that the FDA has approved this product as safe for humans and safe as a feed ingredient for animals. I’m incredibly proud of the efficient, sustainable and safe food supply that we have here in the United States and I feel incredibly fortunate that we’re able to pay less for our high-quality food than any other country in the world. Personally, I’m thankful that I can use this cost savings to spoil my Grandkids and donate to efforts to find the cure for true health problems, such as Multiple Sclerosis.

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