Our Latest Report: A Controversial Animal Feed Additive Gets a Closer Look

In our latest report, Helena Bottemiller investigates a controversial feed additive ractopamine hydrochloride, which has become the focus of a long-running international trade dispute that centers on concerns about its effect on human health. The story, “Dispute Over Drug in Feed Limiting US Meat Exports,” appears today on msnbc.com, one of the top three global news sites on the web, and was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network.

“Although few Americans outside of the livestock industry have ever heard of ractopamine, the drug is controversial,” Bottemiller writes. “Fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States, it has sickened or killed more of them than any other livestock drug on the market, Food and Drug Administration records show. Cattle and turkeys have also suffered high numbers of illnesses from the drug.”

The story reports that USDA meat inspectors have reported an increase in the number of “downer pigs”—lame animals unable to walk—who have been fed ractopamine. The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously struck down a California law that had sought to keep out of the food supply downer livestock. It overturned the lower court’s ruling on the grounds of federal preemption.

The report explains that ractopamine, which has not been proposed for human use, mimics stress hormones, making the heartbeat faster and relaxing blood vessels. In animals, it revs up production of lean meat, reducing fat. Pigs raised on it produce an average of 10 percent more meat, raising profits by $2 per head. The drug is fed to animals right up until slaughter and minute traces of it have been found in meat.

The European Union, China, Taiwan and many others have banned its use, limiting U.S. meat exports to key markets. Bottemiller explains that U.S. trade officials are pressing more countries to accept meat from animals raised on ractopamine—a move opposed by China and the EU, reporting: “Resolving the impasse is now a top agricultural trade priority for the Obama administration, which is trying to boost exports and help revive the economy.”

The trade dispute centers on safety studies conducted by drug maker Elanco. It conducted only one human study with six healthy young men, one of whom was removed because his heart began racing and pounding abnormally, Bottemiller writes. Elanco has reported that “no adverse effects were observed for any treatments,” but, within a few years of its approval, it received hundreds of reports of sickened pigs, according to records obtained by Bottemiller from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

The issue has been deadlocked since 2008 at the U.N.’s Codex Alimentarius Commission, which sets global food-safety standards, on the acceptable level, if any, of ractopamine in meat. Setting a Codex standard for ractopamine would strengthen Washington’s ability to challenge other countries’ meat import bans at the World Trade Organization, Bottemiller explains. The EU and China—which together produce and consume about 70 percent of the world’s pork—have blocked repeated efforts of U.S. trade officials to set a residue limit. U.S. officials say the EU does not want to risk a public outcry by importing meat raised with growth-promoting drugs, which are illegal there.

You can read the full story in our archive here, as well as additional reporting on the process at Codex here. The piece in our archive also contains additional reporting on the testing of ractopamine.

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