FERN’s Livestock Drug Story Has International Impact

Last year on NBCNews.com, we published the first investigation on the livestock drug ractopamine, which was linked to more reports of livestock illnesses and deaths than any other drug. While we showed that this controversial growth promoting drug was at the heart of a trade dispute with China over American meat exports, what we did not foresee is the role it would play in the proposed $4.7 billion sale of Smithfield Foods, the nation’s largest pork producer.

Our follow-up report, out last week on NBCNews.com, spelled out this connection, showing how China’s desire for meat raised without this growth additive – deemed safe and effective by the FDA — had led Smithfield to shift half of its production line to avoid the drug.

Reuters, reporting last week on the Smithfield deal, obliquely mentioned our work when the news service wrote that “U.S. media reports of ractopamine-fed pigs becoming sick fueled questions among food-safety critics last year about the potential long-term impact on human health.” FERN’s early reporting also played out internationally, with Taiwan officials and media asking FERN to post the adverse-drug experience documents we obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request from the FDA.

Though China was most visible when we first reported on the story, Russia banned U.S. beef and pork from its market earlier this year. It has refused to re-open its market until Washington can verify that American meat was produced without the drug.

FERN’s reporter on the story, Helena Bottemiller, had explained that U.S. trade officials were pressing more countries to accept meat from animals raised on ractopamine, particularly Taiwan—and now Russia. “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,” she wrote in her first report.

Now it looks as if the market may shift away from ractopomine, especially if the sale of Smithfield goes through. As a result of lagging exports, the U.S. is seeing a glut of meat in the marketplace. Pressure is building from advocacy groups to get the drug out of the market (see the online petition and an op-ed that questioned the drug). But exports may hold even more weight, as other meat processors closely watch Smithfield’s moves and consider their next steps.

This is precisely the kind of investigative work we aim to do. We want to bring to the foreground issues that have been ignored or underreported but which can inform discussion, and propel change. We will continue to follow up on this and our other stories as they develop. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and keep an eye here on our blog to stay informed on our work.