Tyson just announced that it no longer would carry beef from cattle fed the drug Zilmax, a drug that contains ractopamine. This voluntary change by a company that thrives on selling factory-farmed animal products followed on the heels of reports of cattle given Zilmax walking on the tiptoes or sitting like dogs or displaying other behavior that could only be due to illness and discomfort. Pigs have long been fed this drug and the results include hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk, and death. These drugs are also used in chickens and turkeys.
That is to say, the drug is widely fed to animals in this country since its approval in 1999. In contrast, it is banned in many others including the European Economic Union, Russia, and China. Yes, even China with its questionable safety record has rejected meat from this country because it was tainted with ractopamine. But rather than follow the lead of these countries, we are apparently trying to convince (read coerce) other countries to accept the drug: We recently suspended trade negotiations with Taiwan over its insistence on refusing meats with ractopamine residue.
Ractopamine is a beta-agonist. Beta agonists are a type of drugs primarily prescribed to treat asthma and other pulmonary disorders in humans. All beta agonists have the ability to cause tremors and other side effects. Ractopamine, however, is not approved for use in humans. Instead, it was approved to cause quick weight gain in feed animals even though it is not beneficial in humans. In fact, the FDA recommends that workers with cardiac issues carefully protect themselves from ractopamine. And people with heart issues may be worsening their health by consuming ractopamine residue in their foods. According to one study, the residue may result in “tachycardia and other heart rate increases, tremor, headache, muscle spasm, or high arterial blood pressure.”
Frankly, the FDA should not be approving drugs used to increase the profitability of raising feed animals. Only drugs needed to treat illness should be approved. The misuse of low doses of drugs, such as antibiotics, to enhance growth should be illegal. But this is an unrealistic point of view at present. The FDA sees nothing wrong with its approval of beta agonists to “promote leaness in animals raised for meat,” hormones to disrupt the cows’ reproductive hormones, and anti-bloating drugs to prevent extreme bloating in animals fed foods they cannot digest (e.g., cows fed grains, potato chips, tomatoes, and such).
The agencies responsible for animal husbandry do not have consumer health and safety as their primary goal. If they did, they would without exception demand that animals be raised and fed properly so that our meats come from healthy animals. No cows sitting like dogs, no vomiting pigs with tremors would be entering our food chain. There would be no residues in our food that may cause tachycardia, hypertension, or worse. Our steaks could not consist of bits of leftovers glued together.
But given that these conditions exist, there is a simple take home message: We must take responsibility and make sure that any animal we eat was raised properly. Cows fattened on grains, food rejects, and drugs before slaughter simply will not do. Chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, all need to be pastured and fed their natural diet from birth to death. Rejecting factory-farmed animals will limit our menu choices when eating out and will make shopping more expensive but, until we have better animal husbandry oversight, it is the only healthy way to go.
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