Hey. What's your beef?

The Beef War
Moanin' over hormones
Hormonal politics
Nutty, dangerous genes
Guessing game?
Udder woes

The fast food may be American, but the burgers' beef can't be.

© Jessica Baumgart.


One dose makes you larger
Just as athletes use steroid hormones to build beefy muscles, American cattle producers use steroids to build muscular beef. And just as the Olympics has banned steroids for athletes, the European Union has banned imports of hormone-treated beef.

McFat or McMuscle?
Beef producers use steroids to alter the way cattle use energy in food. Normally, excess energy "will be laid down as fat," says Susan Brewer, associate professor of food chemistry at the University of Illinois at Champaign, because fat is "the most efficient storage mechanism... By and large we don't want fat meat, and to get more lean tissue out of the energy we feed, we have to shift the balance of power away from fat and toward lean muscle."

A second goal, notes animal scientist James Marsden of Kansas State University, is to improve meat quality by promoting "marbling," the development of fine fatty tissue in muscle.

Among the chemicals that can help raise leaner meat are feed supplements containing particular amino acids and hormones. Many of the hormones in question are anabolic steroids -- relatives of testosterone and estrogen, the "male" and "female" hormones.

Steroids are a major group of endocrine hormones, which take part in a slick communication network that reaches virtually every cell in the body to control reproduction, growth and development.

Signs of trouble
Since tiny concentrations of hormones can have drastic effects, the idea of changing the hormonal balance in beef-eating humans is obviously worth worrying about. About 30 years ago, we learned that the synthetic estrogen DES had caused vaginal cancer in some women whose mothers had taken it to prevent miscarriage during pregnancy. (DES was also used to promote growth in cattle. It, like all other cancer-causing chemicals, is now banned from the food chain in the United States.)

Beef producers administer synthetic hormones by inserting a slow-release pellet (think Norplant for steers) into the ear. The insertion is generally done when the animal arrives at a feedlot at 6 to 12 months of age. (Feedlots are giant cattle-feeding stations where the animals spend the balance of their lives.

The implant is put in the ear. Ears become byproducts, so local concentrations of synthetic hormones do not wind up in human food. To control the level of residue in the meat, the implants are designed to run out of hormone so the animal can metabolize the remainder before slaughter.

(Animal raisers use plenty of other hormones. Beef producers use them to regulate reproduction in cows. And dairy farmers use bovine growth hormone to stimulate the production of milk.)

Beef hormone treatments are regulated by two agencies. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves veterinary drugs before they reach the market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that the drugs be withdrawn before slaughter, and its Food Safety and Inspection Service checks for hormone residues in meat. The regulatory goal is to ensure that anyone eating beef will get a dose of residual hormones that's less than 1 percent of the highest dose that caused no ill effect in test animals. Says Brewer, "We have a 100-fold safety factor built into the tolerances."

That's the background. Let's go for the meat of the matter.

Is it safe???
The Why Files sifted the scientific literature for evidence that it's dangerous to eat meat treated with hormones, and came up empty-handed. There's been little study of the issue during the past 20 years because scientists think there's nothing to investigate, or have no money to do it. There was no sign of a long-term study of human-health effects -- admittedly an expensive, complicated undertaking.

A search of Toxline, a major database on chemical toxicity, showed that most of the health studies, performed more than 20 years ago, reported no health hazards. A similar search of Medline, the major medical database, revealed two articles. We couldn't track down the one in the 1995 Belgian Journal of Pharmacy. The other, by W. Arneth in the Zeitschrift fur die Gesamte Innere Medizin und Ihre Grenzgebiete (Feb. 1992), included this material in its English-language abstract:

"Application of hormones does not result in any significant alteration in the hormonal levels in vivo. The quantity of hormones which may be ingested through meat is comparatively very small to the levels synthesized in the body of human beings, even in children. Additionally, these substances when introduced orally have no significant physiological activity... The prohibition of these hormones seems to be more for political and economical reasons than for their harmful side effects for the consumer."
Margaret Mellon, a food and biotechnology expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists who has taken the lead in warning of the health effects of irradiation and genetic engineering of food, did not know of any U.S. scientists studying the issue. She observes that part of the cause may be funding shortages: The beef industry has no incentive to perform tests unless required by regulators, and regulators have expressed little concern about hormones once they have passed FDA pre-marketing tests.

So why are Europeans stampeding toward trade war?

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