An opening to consumer-friendly labeling?

National Public Radio reported on August 13, 2015, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a label for a farmer’s pork products that will read “produced without the use of ractopamine.” The producer, David Maren, wants to use the label to distinguish his products from most other pork products. Apparently, most pork producers in the United States give this drug to their pigs during “finishing.” Some poultry and many beef animals raised for human consumption also are given ractopamine. Producers use ractopamine because it causes the animal to gain weight more quickly and increases the proportion of lean meat. The drug is a beta agonist, a stimulant which acts like a stress hormone such as adrenaline.

Japan, Canada, and Mexico all allow ractopamine to be added to the feed of animals produced for human consumption. But there is controversy over whether the drug is safe and, if so, at what levels. China bans it. Russia stopped accepting U.S. pork for import because the drug is banned there, as well. In a 2009 evaluation, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) found that the data was insufficient to establish the safety of ractopamine.

The Codex Alimentarius, a food safety component of the United Nations, adopted a limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for muscle meat from cattle and pigs in 2012. The vote was closely divided, 69 to 67; but the European Union (EU) Council of Ministers for Agriculture upheld the EFSA ban, overruling the Codex established by EFSA. They noted that in the only tests involving human beings, one of the six subjects developed cardiac symptoms and had to leave the trial. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising that Maren believes that American consumers might be willing to pay a bit more for ractopamine-free pork.

The FDA approved ractopamine for this use in 1999. Since then, there have been numerous reports of animals made sick or injured after treatment with ractopamine. In November 2014, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) sued the FDA to invalidate 11 approvals of different forms of ractopamine for use with turkeys, pigs, and cattle for failure to comply with the National Environmental Protection Act. CFS alleges that the FDA has failed to consider the cumulative impact of the use of the drug in the “vast majority” of pigs, cattle, and turkeys slaughtered for food in the U.S. In addition, CFS claims that the drug is known to be linked to adverse health events in both animals and human beings, including “abnormal heartbeat, aggression, hyperactivity, collapse, and even death.”

Resistance is typical

As Wolters Kluwer has reported, the FDA has resisted any requirement to label food that contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), notwithstanding consumer demand. The agency and the food industry have taken the position that the FDA has decided that there are no material differences between foods produced with GMOs and foods produced without them, or milk produced from cows treated with rBGH or without it. Requiring the food to be labeled gives the false impression that there must be something wrong with it. In order to prevent consumer confusion, therefore, it would not require labeling.

The government and the industry both have resisted the demands of international customers to buy food from the U.S. only if it meets their standards, such as bans on the use of GMOs or ractopamine. For example, in April, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack criticized the E.U. decision to allow each country to determine for itself whether to accept GMO products as allowing countries to “develop barriers to products for political or cultural reasons.” For at least ten years, the U.S. has tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade China, Taiwan, and Russia to “open their markets” to U.S. pork produced with ractopamine by withholding concessions. It hasn’t worked.

According to an industry observer, U.S. meat exports to China have dropped significantly since 2013. Exports began to fall during the latter half of 2014. During the first half of 2015, U.S. pork exports to China were down by half compared to the same period in 2014. This observer takes the position that even if China’s concerns aren’t supported by science, there are plenty of suppliers willing to accommodate them. If American pork producers do not meet the demand, they will lose the opportunity to sell to the market that consumes more pork than any other.

In that light, perhaps the USDA’s agreement to a “no ractopamine” label may indicate a willingness to listen to the market? Or perhaps it is just an easy concession to a member of the industry. It took several attempts for Maren to get his label approved. The agency wanted to avoid confusion. As another producer who uses ractopamine told NPR, “”When you put a label like that on there, it will immediately make the consumer think, ‘Well what is this? It must be something bad,'” The label will read “No ractopamine—a beta agonist growth promotant.” For the consumer who hadn’t previously heard of ractopamine, how clear is that communication?