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None of Us Should Eat Extra Estrogen

Instead of forcing Europe to open its markets to U.S. beef, why not just quit implanting hormones in American cattle?

March 24, 1997|SAMUEL S. EPSTEIN | Dr. Samuel S. Epstein is professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health and Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition Inc. in Chicago

When U.S. and Canadian beef cattle go to feedlots, hormone pellets are implanted under the ear skin, a process that is repeated at the midpoint of their 100-day fattening period. The hormones increase the weight of the cattle, adding to profits by about $80 per animal.

The most common hormone in current use is estradiol, a potent cancer-causing and gene-damaging estrogen. The FDA maintains that residues of estradiol and other hormones in meat are within "normal" levels, and has waived any requirements for monitoring and chemical testing.

Europe, however, has rightly eyed U.S. claims with great skepticism and since 1989 the European Union has forbidden the sale of beef from hormone-treated cattle. The opening of global markets has placed that ban under attack.

On Feb. 17, a panel of World Trade Organization judges began closed hearings on a U.S. and Canadian challenge charging that the European ban is merely protectionist and is costing North America $100 million a year in lost exports.

The FDA's claims of safety were endorsed by a 1987 report of two U.N. bodies, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, an endorsement that is the main basis of the U.S. and Canadian action against Europe. The joint committee that prepared the report, however, has minimal expertise in public health and high representation of veterinary scientists and senior FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials. Relying heavily on unpublished industry information and outdated scientific citations, the committee claimed that hormone residues in legally implanted cattle are so low that eating treated meat could not possibly induce any hormonal or carcinogenic effects.

However, confidential industry reports to the FDA, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, reveal high hormone residues in meat products even under ideal test conditions. Following a single ear implant in steers of Synovex-S, a combination of estradiol and progesterone, estradiol levels in different meat products were up to 20-fold higher than normal. The amount of estradiol in two hamburgers eaten in one day by an 8-year-old boy could increase his total hormone levels by as much as 10%, based on conservative assumptions, because young children have very low natural hormone levels.

In real life, the situation may be much worse. An unpublicized random USDA survey of 32 large feedlots found that as many as half the cattle had visible illegal "misplaced implants" in muscle, rather than under ear skin. This would result in very high local concentrations of hormones, and also elevated levels in muscle meat at distant sites. Such abuse is very hard to detect.

Responding to European concerns, the USDA recently claimed that, based on standard residue monitoring programs, drug levels in violation of regulations have not been detected in meat products. However, of 130 million livestock commercially slaughtered in 1993, not one was tested for estradiol or any related hormone.

The question we ought to be asking is not why Europe won't buy our hormone-treated meat, but why we allow beef from hormone-treated cattle to be sold to American and Canadian consumers. Untreated meat is currently hard to find and expensive; if it were widely produced and available, the price would come down. At the least, meat produced from hormone-treated animals should be explicitly labeled.

These hormones are linked ever more closely to the escalating incidence of reproductive cancers in the U.S. since 1950--55% for breast cancer, 120% for testicular cancer and 190% for prostate cancer. The endocrine-disruptive effects of estrogenic pesticides and other industrial food contaminants known as xenoestrogens are now under intensive investigation by federal regulatory and health agencies. But the contamination of meat with residues of the far-more-potent estradiol remains ignored.

The world trade judges ought to listen to one of the top FDA officials involved in meat safety, David Livingston. In Orville Schell's 1984 meat industry expose, "Modern Meat," Livingston is quoted as saying, "Well, if you're going to have enough inexpensive meat for everyone, you're going to have to use some of these drugs. But personally, I'd rather eat meat that was raised without them." In other words, what's good enough for the rest of us is not something he wants to eat.

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