Hormones in meat

The UK imports about 30% of its meat. Some is from the EU, but a large amount is from countries including Brazil, Argentina and Australia, where lower production costs make meat cheaper.

In some non-EU countries, hormonal growth promoters are used in beef production to increase cow size and reduce fat content. But in Europe, these promoters were banned in the 1980s over food safety concerns. This has raised questions over whether UK farmers are set at a disadvantage to overseas producers and whether non-EU meat poses a food safety risk.

Background

The production of meat is controlled by hormones. Growth hormones control the extent of growth, muscle and fat production, feed consumption and milk production.

Treating animals with specific combinations and doses of hormones can make a carcass more valuable, as muscle growth can be increased and fat is reduced. Most importantly, hormone-treated animals are cheaper to rear as they need less feed to maintain muscle. Overall the increase in productivity from using hormones is 5-20%.

The most widely-used treatments are combinations of sex hormones (androgens and oestrogens) for use in beef cattle, growth hormones for milk production in cattle and growth in pigs and adrenal hormones (beta-agonists) which increase muscle in pigs and cattle. Sex hormones are released via a plastic pellet implanted behind the ear, while growth hormones are given by injection. Beta-agonists are included in animal feed and absorbed in the intestine.

Social aspects

A European Commission directive banning the use of hormones in meat production was introduced in the 1980s. Imported meat from animals with detectable levels of hormonal residues was also banned.

The ban was introduced as evidence suggested oestrogenic hormones were carcinogenic at high levels. While animals given correct dosages were unlikely to have high levels, they could occur if there was misuse, such as tissue from an implantation site being sent for consumption.

But the EU was not just concerned about health - the ban was also based on consumer perception that using hormones to manipulate growth is unnatural, unnecessary and a risk to animal welfare.

In the US, where hormones are used, officials maintain there is no good evidence of  any health risk from using hormones. The country has long-debated the issue with  the EU as it claims the ban is against the spirit of free trade between countries.

Current position

The EU’s position on hormonal growth promotes has strengthened since the 1980s, partly because of examples of illegal hormone use - particularly muscle-building beta-agonists - in some countries. Monitoring residues of growth promotors is now more stringent and coordinated by a single body in each member state. In the UK, residues are monitored by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, which also also monitors residues from meat imported from other EU countries. Exporting countries also have their own surveillance programmes and infringements can lead in the cessation of exports to the EU.

Overseas producers supplying the EU usually designate special production units where no hormonal growth promoters are used. The loss of extra productivity is balanced by the high prices received. However, it can still be argued that producers in these countries are at an advantage compared with EU producers because the bulk of their production benefits from greater overall efficiency and can ‘subsidise’ exports of meat from untreated animals.

The main argument against growth promoters is the food safety risk, but consumers in many non-EU countries are apparently unconcerned about their use in meat and milk production. Promoters are seen as a normal part of animal production and as a tool to make livestock farming more efficient.

While some claim they compromise animal welfare, most hormonal growth promoters have no measurable effects on welfare indicators, so the basis of a ban on welfare grounds is unclear.

With food security and climate change coming to the fore, some have argued the need to improve production efficiency while reducing greenhouse gas emissions means EU producers could argue for the use of growth promoters. However public perception of the treatment of animals used for food production will always be a major consideration.

Animal Briefs is an initiative of The British Society of Animal Science to provide factual and impartial information on matters of topical concern.

This brief has been prepared by Professor J D Wood, University of Bristol, for the Society. For more information please email bsas@bsas.org.uk

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