A report released on Wednesday in the US highlighted several problems concerning the safe use of ractopamine, a controversial feed additive. US trade officials have been pressing countries — including Taiwan — to lift their import bans on meat produced with the drug.
The report, conducted by Helena Bottemiller, was produced by the Food and Environment Reporting Network, an independent and non-profit news organization providing investigative reporting on food, agriculture and environmental health.
In the article, Bottemiller first questioned the safety studies used by US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to classify ractopamine as safe 13 years ago and to set a level of acceptable residues in meat.
“The safety study conducted by the drug maker Elanco lies at the heart of the current trade dispute,” Bottemiller said.
Elanco mainly tested animals — mice, rats, monkeys and dogs — to judge how much ractopamine could be safely consumed, while only one human study was used in the safety assessment. Among the six healthy young men who participated, one was removed because his heart began beating rapidly and 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.
“Since it was introduced, ractopamine had sickened or killed more than 218,000 pigs as of March 2011, more than any other animal drug on the market, a review of FDA veterinary records shows,” the report says.
The FDA ruled that ractopamine was safe and approved it for pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and turkeys in 2008, Bottemiller said.
Bottemiller said there was a problem of overuse of the additive.
She quoted Temple Grandin, a professor at Colorado State University and animal welfare expert, as saying: “I’ve personally seen people overuse the drug in hogs and cattle.”
“I was in a plant once where they used too much ractopamine and the pigs were so weak they couldn’t walk. They had five or six people just dedicated to handling the lame pigs,” Grandin was quoted as saying in the report.
Another issue mentioned in the report was that “in the US, residue tests for ractopamine are limited.”
“In 2010, for example, the US did no tests on 10 billion kilograms of pork; 712 samples were taken from 12 billion kilograms of beef. Those results have not yet been released,” Bottemiller writes.
Canada and 24 other countries also approved the drug, but Taiwan, the EU, China and many others countries have banned its use, limiting US meat exports to key markets.
Bottemiller said in the report that some US food companies also avoid meat produced with the feed additive, including Chipotle restaurants, meat producer Niman Ranch and Whole Foods Markets.
The issue has also strained the US-Taiwan trade relationship.
Taiwan began testing US beef for ractopamine in January last year, prolonging a suspension in talks under the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) that had been in place since 2007, when Taiwan banned US beef imports because of mad cow disease concerns.
The latest US effort to get Taiwan to revise its zero tolerance of ractopamine use was made by US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell on Jan. 20 when he said that “now that the [Jan. 14 presidential and legislative] election is over, we are hoping that Taiwan will do something on the beef issue.”