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Europe's Worries About U.S. Meat Should Be Our Worry Too

Los Angeles Times, p. 5, January 30, 1989


The United States is alone among other meat-exporting countries, such as Argentina and Australia, in accusing the European Economic Community of unfair trade practices in its January 1, ban of hormone-treated U.S. meat, and in threatening retaliatory sanctions. These actions ignore serious questions on the carcinogenic and other risks of hormonally contaminated meat that are of major concern to European consumers who, one year ago, pressured the EEC into banning the use of hormone additives.

In 1979 after three decades of misleading assurances of safety and use as a growth-promoting animal-feed additive, the United States banned DES. The meat industry then promptly switched to other carcinogenic additives, particularly the natural sex hormones estradiol, progesterone and testosterone, which are implanted in the in the ears of more than 90% of commercially raised feedlot cattle. Unlike, the synthetic DES, whose residues can be monitored and whose use was conditional on a seven-day pre-slaughter withdrawal period, residues of natural hormones are not detectable--they cannot be practically differentiated from the same hormones produced by the body. Since 1983 the Food and Drug Administration has allowed virtually unregulated use of these additives right up to the time of slaughter, subject only to the theoretical and non-enforceable requirement that residue levels in meat must be less than 1% of the daily hormonal production of young children.

A dramatic warning of the dangers of growth-promoting additives was triggered by an epidemic of premature sexual development and ovarian cysts involving about 3,000 Puerto Rican infants and children from 1979 to 1981. These toxic effects were traced to hormonal contamination of fresh meat products, and were usually reversed by simple dietary, changes. The meat products were found to be contaminated with estrogen residues more than ten-fold the normal ranges. This epidemic also was associated with increased rates of uterine and ovarian cancers in adults.

More than a decade ago, Roy Hertz, then the director of endocrinology of the National Cancer Institute, warned of the carcinogenic risks of estrogenic feed additives, particularly for hormonally sensitive tissues such as the breast but also because there is no way of determining what levels of exposure, if any, are safe. Virtually the entire U.S. population consumes, without any warning or information, unknown amounts of hormonal residues in meat products over their lifetimes. Left unanswered is whether such chronic and uncontrolled estrogen dosages are involved in increasing cancer rates, particularly the alarming 50% increase in the incidence of breast cancer since 1965. These questions are of further concern in view of recent evidence confirming the association between breast cancer and oral contraceptives, whose estrogen dosage over a fraction of a lifetime is known and controlled in contrast with that from residues of growth hormones in meat products.

Hormonal food contamination in America is only part of a larger problem caused by usage of thousands of feed additives. These include antibiotics, tranquilizers, pesticides and animal drugs, many of which are carcinogenic apart from other harmful effects. The runaway technologies of the meat-product and pharmaceutical industries are supported by tremendous lobbying pressures and a revolving door between senior personnel in industry and regulatory agencies. This was personified by Reagan Administration agriculture secretaries, John Block, a former Illinois hog farmer, and Richard Lying, a former head of the American Metal Institute.

As evidenced in a series of Government Accounting Office investigations and congressional hearings, USDA inspection and FDA, registration and residue-tolerance programs are in near total disarray. The majority of feed additives are used in the absence of evidence of efficacy, practical and sensitive monitoring methods, and minimal if any safety test data, apart from the widespread, use of illegal and unapproved drugs. The hazards of U.S. meat have retrogressed from the random fecal and bacterial contamination of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" to the brave new world of deliberate chemicalization.

Regardless of any possible trade basis for the EEC embargo, it should prompt a high-level investigation and drastic reform of federal regulation and meat-industry practices. The U.S. position also raises problems of dual standards, since the United States banned, imports of Australian beef in 1987 on the grounds of excess residues of the carcinogenic pesticide heptachlor.

All hormonal feed additives should be banned, as should be all other animal additives in the absence of conclusive evidence on their efficacy and safety. Any additive use should be subject to requirements for explicit labeling of residue levels in all meat products, including milk and eggs.

Until then, apart from possible initiatives at a state level, consumers should boycott chemicalized meat products in favor of organic ones. Consumers should also insist on their right to know and demand independent certification and verification, such as the California NutriClean program for testing pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables that is now available in about 600 supermarkets nationwide.


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