There is another way factory farmers make animals grow faster besides antibiotics and hormones. The asthma-like drug ractopamine is used in 45 percent of US pigs according to Bacon Bits, the Canadian Pork Industry newsletter, in 30 percent of ration-fed cattle and a growing number of turkeys. Unlike most livestock drugs, ractopamine is not withdrawn before slaughter though its warning label says, "Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Not for use in humans. Keep out of the reach of children," and recommends protective clothing, gloves, eye wear and masks. Cardiac stimulating drugs like ractopamine cause stress and hyperactivity in animals and they are "not appropriate because of the potential hazard for human and animal health," wrote researchers in the journal Talanta. "Adding these drugs to waterways or well water supplies via contaminated animal feed and manure runoff," is also a concern, said David Wallinga, M.D. of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in an interview, "because this class of drugs is so important in treating children with asthma." Could ractopamine, added to the food supply in 1997 with little public awareness, be contributing to skyrocketing rates of obesity and hyperactivity in children?
The charge that heavy metals lurk in US meat doesn't come from food activists and consumer advocates--it comes from the USDA Office of the Inspector General. Its 2010 report found high residues of copper, arsenic and other heavy metals and veterinary drugs in beef released for public consumption including. Animals with violative levels of metals, anti-parasite vaccines and medicines were knowingly released into the human food supply by inspectors says the report. Pesticides are also a disturbing, gray area with only one of 23 high risk pesticides tested for, the Inspector General's office said. The presence of arsenic in poultry made food news in 2011 when a government study found inorganic arsenic, "at higher levels in the livers of chickens treated" with arsenic-laced feed than in untreated chickens. This prompted Pfizer to stop marketing its arsenic feed, 3-Nitro, since arsenic is a carcinogen in its inorganic form. Worries are not over though. The FDA still allows arsenic in poultry feed for weight gain and feed efficiency, to control parasites and to improve "pigmentation." Other arsenic-laced feeds besides 3-Nitro remain on the market.
Why is the meat so red? A few years ago, consumer groups tried to stop the practice of "modified atmosphere packaging" (MAP)--exposing meat to carbon monoxide to keep it looking fresh. They weren't successful. Today as much as 70 percent of meat packages in stores are treated with carbon monoxide to keep the meat's red color (oxymyoglobin) from turning to a brown or gray color (metmyoglobin) through exposure to oxygen. While the meat industry compares meat losing its red color to the harmless discoloration of apples and says MAP keeps products affordable, both the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Food and USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service have expressed concerns that the artificially hued food can appear fresher than it really is. Thanks to MAP meat can stay red an entire year! Consumers do not need to worry about being deceived said Ann Boeckman, a lawyer with a firm representing major meat companies. "When a product reaches the point of spoilage, there will be other signs that will be evidenced--for example odor, slime formation and a bulging package--so the product will not smell or look right." That's a relief.
Nitrites and Nitrates
Did you ever wonder why processed meats stay on store shelves for so long, retaining their color, flavor and not spoiling? You have the preservatives nitrite and nitrate to thank. Nitrite and nitrate may make money for food processors but they are so linked to cancer (when they become "nitrosamines" in the human body) the American Cancer Society tells people not to eat them. After a 2008 report from the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund that showed eating just one hot dog a day increased the risk of developing colorectal cancer by as much as 21 percent, there were calls to ban processed meat products, especially in schools. Nitrite and nitrate are found in hot dogs, luncheon meats, bacon, Slim Jims and most processed and cured meats. Colorectal cancer is not the only cancer associated with nitrosamines, which have been carcinogenic suspects since the 1970s. They have also been linked, in scientific articles, to lung cancer, kidney cancer, stroke, coronary heart disease and diabetes mellitu s. If processed meats sound a lot like cigarettes, you are right. Cigarettes also contain nitrosamines.
An earlier version of this report appeared on AlterNet.org