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July 23, 2014

Time to Make a Racket About Ractopamine in U.S. Pigs

If you have any doubt about the contempt that some leaders within the pork industry have for their own customers – to say nothing of the pigs locked in gestation crates – the dispute over a dangerous animal drug named ractopamine should dispel it. On Monday, McClatchy reported that the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) is maneuvering to derail free trade talks with the European Union unless the EU agrees to accept imports of pork from pigs fed ractopamine. Ractopamine is a beta-agonist (a drug used to treat asthma in humans) that producers feed pigs, cattle and turkeys to induce rapid weight gain. It is banned or restricted in around 160 nations—including in the EU and even in Russia and China. But that hasn’t stopped the American pork industry, which now treats an estimated 60 to 80 percent of its pigs with ractopamine, from routinely using the drug. And, despite substantial evidence that ractopamine causes pigs to suffer, the American pork industry is now trying to push its product into more foreign markets, too – under their doctrine that its profits should trump any concerns from regulators, scientists or consumers about food safety or animal welfare.

Pigs
Research shows that ractopamine causes pigs to become stressed and aggressive, and makes them more likely to collapse. Photo: Farm Sanctuary

There are serious questions about food safety and ractopamine. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved ractopamine for use on pigs after just one human health study—a study of six young, healthy men, one of whom dropped out because his heart began racing and pounding abnormally. Three years later, the FDA sent ractopamine’s sponsor a 14-page letter, accusing the company of withholding information about the drug’s “adverse animal drug experiences” and “safety and effectiveness.” The European Food Safety Authority subsequently investigated the drug and concluded that there was not enough data to show that ractopamine is safe for human consumption at any level. That’s concerning, especially given that a recent Consumer Reports test of pork products at U.S. supermarkets found samples testing positive for ractopamine residues.

We do know, though, that ractopamine is bad for the pigs forced to consume it. The FDA has linked ractopamine to nearly a quarter million reported adverse events in pigs (more than half of those pigs were sickened or killed)—more than any other animal drug. The most common adverse events linked to ractopamine were trembling, lameness, inability to stand, reluctance to move, stiffness, hyperactivity, hoof disorder, dyspnea, collapse and death. Our report on pig welfare cites research showing that ractopamine causes pigs to become stressed and aggressive, and makes them more likely to collapse and become “downers,” no longer able walk. Not only do these downer pigs suffer terribly when they collapse, they also become more vulnerable to abuse. We’ve conducted our own investigations of hog factories, and documented gross mistreatment of downer pigs. The pig industry vehemently fights all of our efforts to require the euthanasia of downer pigs, and to prevent additional handling and slaughter of these infirm animals (processing downed cattle is forbidden under federal law, but not pigs).

More broadly, the dispute over ractopamine shows the arrogance of the leadership of the pork industry, which insists on using a dangerous drug and then complains when other nations and American consumers don’t want their pork. They have some sort of expectation that they are the parents and they will tell the children to eat whatever is on their plate. It reminds me of their stubborn refusal to stop using gestation crates—coffin-sized crates that confine pregnant sows so tightly that they can’t even turn around – and their disregard of public attitude surveys that show that consumers in every state oppose their continued use. NPPC criticized McDonald’s and a cascade of other major food retailers that have made public pledges to phase out their purchase of pork from operations that confine the sows so severely. These retailers are telling the pork industry that if the industry won’t pay attention to the wishes of consumers, then retailers will. The mentality of the industry is best summed up by an NPPC spokesman who told a reporter in 2012 the following: “So our animals can’t turn around for the 2.5 years that they are in the stalls producing piglets. I don’t know who asked the sow if she wanted to turn around…” The NPPC, and some others within the industry, seem to think that their customers exist to serve them, rather than they to serve customers.

These obstructionists are facing a major challenge from within their industry, with major producers splitting from NPPC on gestation crates and ractopamine. Smithfield Foods, for example, has committed to phasing out all of its gestation crates and to reducing its use of ractopamine. And just last month, we were pleased to announce that Cargill is following suit in eliminating gestation crates. Now it’s time for the pork industry’s laggards to step up—and for the obstructionists at the NPPC to get out of the way. Neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture or U.S. trade negotiators, nor their counterparts in the E.U., should buckle to the unreasonable demands and the unsafe and inhumane policies of the leadership of the U.S. pork industry. 

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