Most pigs in America are fed with beta-agonists, a feed additive known as ractopamine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed ractopamine safe for pigs in 1999. Since FDA approval, the United States swine industry has been using ractopamine to get their pigs to gain more muscle, instead of fat, so they will weigh more. The more weight—the more money pig farmers receive. Extra weight could bring in two to three more dollars per pig.
However, the use of this drug sparks some controversy. Safety regulators in countries like China, Russia, and parts of the European Union have not approved the drug, saying there isn’t enough evidence that ractopamine is safe for human consumption. In fact, China demands all pork imported from the U.S. be ractopamine-free.
In addition, reports claim the animals suffer from the drug. Human health concerns put aside, many reports indicated that when animals get too much of the drug they react abnormally. USDA meat inspectors reported an increase in the number of “downer pigs” — lame animals unable to walk — in slaughter plants. Because of the high number of adverse reactions, the FDA requested Elanco, a division of Eli Lilly that sells the drug under the brand name Paylean, add a warning label to the drug. The company did add the warning in 2002.
Virginia farmer, David Maren of Tendergrass Farms, is doing something about the use of ractopamine that is causing added controversy—some say in a positive way. Maren told NPR he decided he would not feed his swine ractopamine; he would sell his pork products from pigs that were raised on pastures, the “all-natural” way. Organic pork producers never use ractopamine to feed their pigs. And natural pork producers probably don’t use the drug, as well. However, there’s little awareness of ractopamine being used in the pork industry because pork products aren’t labeled in such a way to let buyers and consumers know if the beta-agonists was fed to the pork they purchase.
Dave Maren wanted to do something to let the world know his pork was ractopamine-free. So he submitted a new label for his pork products, “Our pigs are never fed beta-agonists (like Ractopamine), — drugs widely used as artificial growth promotants in the pork industry today.”
One of the U.S. Department of Agriculture responsibilities is to make sure meat labels are not false or misleading. They refused to approve Maren’s proposed label. NPR’s coverage of Maren’s label request says, “Officials at the USDA advised Maren to modify the label to say instead “our animals are never fed growth promotants,” and to include an additional statement that “federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones in pork.” Deputy administrator of the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, which oversees meat labels, Philip Derfler, said Maren’s original proposal was confusing. “Apparently, a judgment was made that the information wasn’t being presented in a way that would be understandable to a consumer.”
But Maren pushed forward, and after he heard that the USDA was reconsidering its position he submitted a new proposal. His company’s new label request, stated that the product is made with “no ractopamine — a beta-agonist growth promotant.” After jumping through a number of hoops, he was able to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to label his products “ractopamine-free” becoming the first USDA-approved label on pork to clearly point out ractopamine.
If more consumers look for ractopamine-free labels on the food products they buy, and are willing to pay more them, this could lead to added pressure on farmers to stop using profitable drugs that are questionable to human and animal health