The Meat You Eat: Steroid Use in Livestock
In yesterday’s article, I discussed the rampant use of antibiotics with livestock – primarily used as a tool to help them grow larger and bigger – and how 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. is for livestock use.
But that’s only half the story of the drugging of livestock: antibiotics aren’t the only drugs given to livestock to help them grow faster.
Each year, U.S. farmers raise some 36 million beef cattle. 99% of all beef cattle entering feedlots in the United States are given steroidal hormone implants to promote faster growth.
A large percentage of poultry and pigs are also fed these drugs.
Many cattle are fed the same muscle-building androgens—usually testosterone surrogates—that some athletes consume. Other animals receive estrogens, the primary female sex hormones, or progestins, semiandrogenic agents that shut down a female’s estrus cycle. Progestins fuel meat-building by freeing up resources that would have gone into the reproductive cycle.
While federal law prohibits people from self-medicating with most steroids, administering these drugs to U.S. cattle is allowed.
There are six anabolic steroids given, in various combinations, to nearly all animals entering conventional beef feedlots in the U.S. and Canada:
* Three natural steroids (estradiol, testosterone, and progesterone), and
* Three synthetic hormones (the estrogen compound zeranol, the androgen trenbolone acetate, and progestin melengestrol acetate).
So this means that when you eat meat, chicken or pork, and drink milk, you are consuming unsafe drugs that weren’t prescribed to you.
Consuming extra hormones disturbs the natural hormonal balance in the body, and eating animal products laced with hormones can have serious consequences for both children and adults.
Kids’ bodies are small and still developing, so exposure to even tiny amounts of the hormones in animal products on a regular basis can have a large impact. According to a report on hormones in meat and milk that appeared in The Los Angeles Times, “The amount of estradiol in two hamburgers eaten in one day by an 8-year-old boy could increase his total hormone levels by as much as 10 percent, based on conservative assumptions, because young children have very low natural hormone levels.”
The Cancer Prevention Coalition warns parents that even small amounts of animal products contain enough hormonal residues to harm children, saying, “No dietary levels of hormones are safe, and a dime-sized piece of meat contains billions of hormone molecules.”
When kids eat the flesh of cows who were treated with hormones, the spike in hormone levels can disrupt the development of their brain and sex organs. According to a report by the European Union on the effects of hormone-laced animal products, “Certain organs are more susceptible to the effects of estrogens, androgens, and anti-androgens [all hormones used in cows raised for food] during development than during adulthood. These organs include the brain, and the … primary and secondary sex organs.”
The negative consequences of feeding children meat were clearly demonstrated in Puerto Rico in the early 1980s, when thousands of children experienced premature sexual development and painful ovarian cysts; the culprit was meat from cattle who had been treated with growth-promoting sex hormones.
The hormones in meat-based diets are also blamed for the early sexual development of young girls in the Western world—nearly half of all African-American girls and 15 percent of their white peers now enter puberty at the age of 8.
Raising the amount of estrogen and other hormones in our bodies through the consumption of meat and milk can cause other disorders, including gynecomastia, or enlarged male breasts. In one school in Italy, nearly one in three boys aged 3 to 5 and more than half of boys aged 6 to 10 were found to have enlarged breasts, and the hormones in meat were suspected to have caused the disorder.
And that’s just the known effects it has on children. For adults, it can have all kinds of repercussions, from hormonal imbalances, to auto-immune problems, cancer, liver and kidney failure, and all kinds of other things.
Questions and controversy over the impacts of these added hormones on human development and health have lingered for four decades. In 1988 the European Union banned the use of all hormone growth promoters in meat because of these issues.
Yet, the U.S. FDA refuses to adequately regulate their use to promote growth in cows, even though these very same drugs in the U.S. are prohibited for over-the-counter use by humans.
And to take it one step further, all concern about the use of steroids in animals has focused on whether trace residues of these hormones in the meat have human-health consequences.
But there’s another way that these powerful agents can find their way into people and other animals. A substantial portion of the hormones literally passes through the cattle into their feces and ends up in the environment, where it can get into other food and drinking water.