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close this bookCERES No. 158 March - April 1996 (FAO Ceres, 1996, 50 p.)
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Trade: Bovine hormone stunts growth of cattle trade

by Helene Stavrou

There is an uneasy consensus among cattle-producing countries and scientists that it is safe to eat meat and dairy products from animals treated with natural and artificial hormones - if properly used. Yet as of this writing, the European Union (KU) has continued to ban the sale of meat and milk from hormone-treated animals, and arguments for and against invoke an unlikely mix of science, trade, economics, consumer sensibilities and animal welfare.

The agricultural practice of using hormones to fatten cattle and stimulate lactation first drew fire in the 1970s when the synthetic sex hormone diethylstibestrol (DES), then prescribed for both humans and cattle, was linked to cancer in the daughters of women who had taken it to prevent miscarriage.

The use of DES was drastically curtailed in medicine and banned outright as a growth promoter in cattle because residues of the hormone remain in meat after slaughter. Many countries did continue, however, to use other hormones as veterinary growth adjuncts. But not the EU countries, which banned all growth-promoting hormones - and consequently the sale of domestic and imported meat from cattle given those hormones. When the milk-stimulating hormone bovine somatotropin (BST) came into use, the EU banned it as well.

In 1984, several governments asked FAO to examine the question of hormone residues in dietary meat in order to determine once and for all whether any health risks were associated with growth-promoting hormones.

The issue went before the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international body through which FAO and the World Health Organization evaluate, adopt and publish food safety standards. The commission asked its Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives to test three natural and two synthetic sex hormones used to speed growth in cattle and the milk-stimulating hormone BST.

The panel found meat from cattle implanted with the synthetic growth-promoting hormones zeranol and trenbolone acetate safe for human consumption if drug residue in the meat did not exceed a specified, minute amount.

The natural hormones estradiol 17B, progesterone, testosterone and BST were deemed safe without any residue limit if used in accordance with “sound veterinary practice.” The panel said only an insignificant amount of hormonal byproduct is consumed in the meat and milk of properly treated animals. Because these byproducts are indistinguishable from chemicals already present in the human body, they pose no threat to human health.

In June 1996, the Codex Commission voted to postpone a decision on BST but adopted the other recommendations for the growth-promoting hormones as international standards of food safety.”

The EU countries generally accepted that the hormones in question, when properly used, do not present a hazard to human health. But they did not back down.

One European concern, according to FAO's Alan Randell, session secretary of the June Codex Commission meeting, was the difficulty in enforcing the “sound veterinary practice” fundamental to safety. All the hormones considered safe when used in accordance with sound practices can be dangerous if misused. Moreover, says Randell, “there is a major problem of illegal use of untested substances in meat production in Europe.”

Scandinavian countries argued on the basis of animal welfare. “Many countries do not want hormone use because it is unnecessary,” says Stuart Slorach of the Swedish National Food Authority. “They don't believe it is justified on the basis of animal welfare: it does affect hormonal balance in animals.”

Finland, Norway and Sweden maintained that the use of hormones to promote growth “did not, in itself, comply with the principles of good agricultural practice.” They said “there was no demonstrated need” to subject animals to hormonal implants.

The Europeans also claim consumers simply do not want to eat meat from hormonally treated animals. Ever since a consumer boycott of veal as a result of illegal use of DES in 1979, consumer sentiment has been decidedly against all hormone additives in meat.

Consumers International, a pan-European watchdog organization, points out that “the consequences from long-term consumption of meat containing hormones remain unknown.

“Even if the health risks from hormones in meat production are minuscule,” the organization contends, consumers should be permitted to avoid any marginal risk should they so choose. “In order for them to be able to make this choice, meat containing hormones should be clearly labelled.”

Proponents of hormone use cried “foul.”

“They are safe, so why prevent their use?” asks Christian Verschueren of Consultation mondiale de l'industrie de la santnimale (COMISA), an international veterinary drug trade organization. COMISA, he says, is “trying to educate the consumer” to acknowledge the safety of hormones administered with established veterinary safeguards.

There are compelling economic arguments in favor of hormones in commercial husbandry. It is far cheaper to feed hormone-fortified cattle. They are more efficient in converting their feed to beef, grow at a faster rate and produce leaner meat, yielding more beef per kilogram of feed. These “production efficiencies'' translate into “savings which should be passed on to consumers,” says Randell. But COMISA's Verschueren and others acknowledge that economic arguments carry less weight where agricultural industries enjoy government subsidies, as in the EU countries.

Some hormone supporters contend, in fact, that EU objections on grounds of safety, economics and consumer preferences are specious arguments used to hide unfair trade practices. They suspect Europe is violating the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. A product of the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, the agreement unequivocally holds countries to imposing only those trade restrictions needed to protect health and “based on scientific principles.”

At a meeting last June, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman pressed European Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler to lift the ban. He contended there was no scientific evidence to support it and threatened to take the case to the WTO. Fischler argued that the fears of consumers must be respected but said the European Commission would re-evaluate its position after an EU scientific conference on growth promotion in meat production. The conference came to the same broad conclusions as the Codex panel.