Ractopamine is a drug added to livestock feed to convert feed to muscle more quickly, making animals grow faster. Like the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics, growth hormones, and arsenic in animal feed, while ractopamine’s use allows some American operations to achieve short term profit gains, it does so at the expense of animal and public health.
Few studies have assessed the safety of ractopamine use on human or animal health, but those that do exist give great cause for concern. The use of ractopamine in livestock feed has been linked to “downer” animals that are too lame to stand or walk because the drug causes muscular-skeletal system problems. It is also associated with highly-stressed animals, increased aggression, broken limbs, and death. In humans it has been linked to palpable cardiovascular changes.
One recent human study is at the core of this international trade dispute. The study was so deficient that it only involved six healthy young male subjects, one of whom dropped out after experiencing heart-pounding sensations. Yet real-life examples demonstrate ractopamine’s dangers to humans. China, for example, estimates that 1,700 people were poisoned by Paylean, a ractopamine product for use in pigs, between 1998 and 2010.
More than 160 countries – including Russia, China, Taiwan, and the 27 members of the European Union – ban or severely limit the use of ractopamine. The U.S. refuses to do so. As a result, nations are now refusing U.S. meat products unless they are certified ractopamine-free.
Bowing to years of pressure from meat-producing member countries like the U.S., last summer Codex passed by narrow vote (instead of the usual consensus format) a decision to issue maximum residue limit standards for ractopamine, rather than pursue the more popular and global concept of a ban. Nations that ban or more stringently regulate ractopamine rightfully reacted with anger. Now their efforts to protect their citizens’ health from the dangers of this drug are at risk.
Rather than reform our own agriculture practices to meet market demands and protect human health, the U.S. has threatened to haul Russia before the World Trade Organization for its refusal to acquiesce to Codex standards. However, Codex standards are not the only international standard since more countries ban or limit ractopamine than support Codex. That more stringent and widespread approach should be the international gold standard, not the unstable results of Codex’s compromised decision-making procedures.
Most recently, U.S. Senators from pork-producing states urged Trade Representative Kirk to step in and address Russia’s ban on U.S. meat. This request is particularly appalling given our inadequate assessments of ractopamine, and is simply inconsistent with sound science and the practices of the livestock industry. A more reasoned approach is not an impossible mission. The U.S. already has a certified ractopamine-free program for pork exports to the EU, and some corporate producers are already operating production plants that are 100 percent ractopamine-free to meet international demand. It is therefore not unreasonable to expect the same for the U.S. market as well.
These drugs do not help American agriculture, they hurt it. Our reliance on this drug has not led to a better product and we must seriously confront American agriculture’s reliance on ractopamine. Not only does it pose a public health hazard but it seriously jeopardizes long-term access to valued foreign markets. The best way for American agriculture to protect access to foreign markets is not to initiate games of protectionism; rather it is to strengthen our own practices in accord with the market's demands. We hope the incoming Trade Representative will make U.S. pork, beef, and turkey appealing to foreign buyers once again by joining us in calling for the immediate prohibition on the use of ractopamine in livestock.
Holmes is a staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety located in Washington, D.C.