In an ideal world, all meat and other food products would be completely safe and chemical-free. However, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes before a package of ground beef is placed on your local supermarket’s shelf. Growth hormones are used in cattle to make them grow faster, produce leaner cuts of meat and increase profits by making the meat industry processes more efficient. While the majority of beef is treated with growth hormones – an estimated 80 percent of all cattle are injected with hormones, according to Sustainable Table – there are some concerns about the safety of hormone-treated meat. Growth hormones are also used in dairy cows to boost their production of milk, with an estimated 17 percent of all cows in the U.S. administered the hormone, according to the source. The use of hormones in chickens, however, is banned in the U.S.
Hormone treatments have been used for a while in the U.S. The FDA stated that it has approved steroid hormone drugs for use in cattle and sheep since the 1950s. However, a lot has changed since then. According to Sustainable Table, the average dairy cow produced nearly 5,300 pounds of milk each year in the 1950s. Today, cows produce an average of 20,000 pounds of milk annually.
An estimated 80 percent of all U.S. cattle and 17 percent of dairy cows receive growth hormones.
Types of hormones
According to HealthyChild.org, the FDA has approved six types of steroidal hormones for use in cattle; half are naturally based and half are synthetic. The natural hormones are estradiol, progesterone and testosterone, and the synthetic ones are trenbolone acetate, progestin melengestrol acetate and zeranol. Dairy cows are given recombinant bovine growth hormone, also known as rBGH, which was approved by the FDA in 1993, according to Health.com.
The hormones are typically administered by inserting a pellet under the skin on the back of the animal’s ear, the FDA explained. The pellets dissolve gradually and the hormones are distributed throughout the animal’s system.
The FDA stated that it approves these drugs only after information and/or studies have shown that the food from the treated animals is safe for people to eat, and that the drugs do not harm the treated animal or the environment.” In addition, it maintained that it has established safe limits for hormones in meat and all hormones have a “zero day withdrawal,” which means there are no residual traces of the drugs in the meat when it’s ready to eat.
However, many industry experts and consumers alike have expressed concern over the safety of hormone-treated meat and dairy products. According to Health.com, the main concern with rBGH is that it may raise levels of insulin-like growth factor, another type hormone, in the cows’ milk. IGF is also found in humans, and some research shows that the content of milk may possibly kickstart the human body to create even more IGF. This is cause for worry because high blood levels of IGF have been linked to a greater risk of developing several different types of cancer. The source cited one study that demonstrated that people with higher-than-normal amounts of IGF in their bodies had a 65 percent higher risk of premenopausal breast cancer and an almost 50 percent higher risk of prostate cancer.
HealthyChild.org noted that hormone-treated cattle may also be administered extra antibiotics, since some antibiotics are given to food animals to reduce side effects from the hormones. The source gave the example that rBGH can cause dairy cows to develop udder infections, which then need to be addressed with antibiotics.
“Hormone-treated cattle may also be administered extra antibiotics.”
In an analysis of the six growth hormones used in cattle, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health expressed concerns over whether residues of the hormones left in the meat could harm humans and cause developmental and reproductive issues.
What you can do
If you are concerned about hormone-added meat and dairy products, it’s recommended that you buy from local farms. You can visit the farm or ranch and speak with the owner to learn more about whether hormones are used, and HealthyChild.org noted that pastured cattle may be a safer source of meat. Also, you should buy only organic meats and dairy products certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, since they must legally be hormone-free.