By Professor Samuel S. Epstein M.D.
On May 14, U.S. Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Dan Glickman stated that "Scientific study after study confirms that American beef is safe and threatened Europe with punitive duties. As the lead public health expert who testified in 1997 before the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the validity of European concerns on breast and other cancer risks from hormonal meat, I am unaware of any such studies on the basis of which Secretary Glickman has been led to rely. In fact, there is a wealth of published scientific evidence, to the contrary.
Contrary to misleading explicit assurance by the USDA, virtually none of the 130 million cattle slaughtered annually are monitored for residues in meat of estradiol or the other two natural sex hormones — progesterone and testosterone — or the three synthetic hormones — trenbolone, zeranol and melengesterol — implanted under the ear skin or fed to cattle in feedlots to increase their weight prior to slaughter. Furthermore, confidential New Animal Drug Applications (NADA's), submitted to the Food and Drug Administration by the animal drug industry since the 1980's, reveal substantial excess residues of these hormones following legal implantation under the ear skin. Illustratively, estradiol residues in meat range up to 20-fold in excess of natural background levels. While US and Canadian experts testified in 1997 before the WTO that such hormone residues are within physiological ranges, these same experts in a February 1999 report by FAO/WHO's Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) now admit that these residues are "statistically significantly elevated". Consumption of hormonal meat by pre-pubertal boys can expose them to excess estradiol at levels close to if not greater than their daily production rates, rather than less than one thousandth as testified by US and Canadian experts in 1997. It should further be stressed that much higher residues, than those reported in the NADA's, result from illegal or accidental implantation in muscle.
For the most commonly used cattle hormone estradiol, its carcinogenicity in reproductive and non- reproductive organs of rodents, relationship to breast and uterine cancers in women, and also gene-damaging (genotoxic) effects have been well established since the 1980's. However, this evidence on genotoxicity was strenuously denied in WTO testimony by US and Canadian experts who stated that safe thresholds or "Acceptable Daily Intakes" (ADI's ) could not be established for genotoxic carcinogens. Yet, these same experts, as lead authors of the 1999 JECFA report, reversed themselves doubly by admitting the genotoxicity of estradiol while claiming that ADI's could nevertheless be established.
The high incidence of violative residues in US certified hormone-free meat exported to the U.S. has raised recent concerns. Further concerns, unrecognized by the US, include environmental contamination, particularly of drinking water, from fecal and urinary excretion of hormones by millions of cattle continuingly processed through feedlots. Of related concern is the reported sale to rendering plants of discarded ears of slaughtered cattle containing very high residual levels of hormones for potential uses including animal feed, pet food, and manufacture of gelatin and glycerol for cosmetics, food and pharmaceutical products.
Finally, it should be stressed that there are serious concerns with regard to the transparency of proceedings, integrity, conflicts of interests, and lack of expertise of the membership of JECFA on the basis of whose reports US and Canadian WTO testimony and claims of safety have been, and remain, based. Illustratively, over half of the members of the 1999 JECFA report are US and Canadian regulatory officials and industry' consultants, none of whom have recognized expertise in public health, preventive medicine, and cancer prevention. These considerations have even broader implications with regard to global concerns and decision making on food safety.