Consumer Reports has released results of tests conducted on pork products that raise questions on the use of a compound called ractopamine – a feed additive that enhances growth and creates a leaner meat product. Best Food Facts wanted to learn more, so we talked with Dr. Donald Beermann, director of the Institutional Animal Care Program and Research Compliance at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Dr. Beermann is very familiar with the process of review and approval of feed additives for use in animals raised for food. He has conducted research on the subject for over 20 years and delivered a lecture at the European Commission's Scientific Conference on Enhancing Meat Animal Growth in Brussels, Belgium.
Best Food Facts: How widely used is ractopamine?
Dr. Beermann: "In the U.S. it has been approved for use in three species – beef, pork and turkey. Somewhere between 70 and 75% of swine are fed ractopamine."
Best Food Facts: Is this safe? How do we know?
Dr. Beermann: "Yes. Here in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a very rigorous process that takes a minimum of three to five years to determine if compounds like ractopamine are safe to use in food animals."
Best Food Facts: The Consumers Union, the advocacy branch of Consumer Reports, says ractopamine should be banned because there isn’t enough evidence that it’s safe for humans. You’ve researched ractopamine specifically – what do you think?
Dr. Beermann: "This tells me they are invoking the Precautionary Principle, which says if there is any perceived risk whatsoever of potential ill effects, then it should be avoided.
"Residues of ractopamine exist primarily in the liver and kidney. The fact of the matter is that the human body will not be affected by eating meat that contains trace amounts of ractopamine that might be detected in animals fed ractopamine. The residue levels present in pork, beef and turkey fed ractopamine according to the label directions are far less than the maximum residue levels set by the food safety agencies across the globe, including Codex Alimentarius, the FDA and Health Canada.
"We shouldn’t be turning our back on solid, scientific evidence that has been produced over the past 20 or 30 years that shows this compound is safe."
Best Food Facts: Why has it been banned in other countries?
Dr. Beermann: "Countries that have banned it, the European Union in particular, have come forward and said even though the scientific basis is there to know that the use of these compounds is safe, for other reasons they choose not to approve them.
"The World Health Organization and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization joint expert commission on food additives has on three separate occasions (2004, 2006 and 2010) concluded that ractopamine is safe.
"The global food safety agencies, which would include the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Canadian Human Safety Division, Veterinary Drugs Directorate, Health Canada, have all come forward and stated ractopamine is absolutely safe."
Best Food Facts: Is the meat that comes from animals that are fed ractopamine any different than other meat products?
Dr. Beermann: "Research results demonstrate that meat quality characteristics (muscle color, pH, degree of marbling and moisture retention) and sensory traits of cooked pork (flavor, tenderness and juiciness) were not different from pork derived from pigs not fed ractopamine. Nutrient composition of pork is also unaffected."
Best Food Facts: Some are concerned that the only benefit derived from the use of ractopamine is an economic boost for farmers and the companies that sell it to them. Is there a benefit to society as a whole?
Dr. Beermann: "It is true that ractopamine enhances the efficiency in growth of the animal, allowing it to produce more meat while eating less. This helps keep meat more affordable for all of us who eat it. Also, since the animal is eating less, they are producing less waste and that’s good for our environment."