(Article changed on December 11, 2012 at 11:33)
A drug many people are eating without knowing it is starting a trade dispute between Russia and the US. This week, Russia announced it will turn away US beef and pork imports unless the US can certify they contain no residue of the livestock drug ractopamine. The ban is scheduled to begin on Friday.
Ractopamine, an asthma-like drug called a beta-agonist that increases muscle, was integrated into the US food supply over 10 years ago largely under the public's radar. It is used in 45 percent of US pigs, 30 percent of ration-fed cattle and an undisclosed number of turkeys. Unlike veterinary drugs that are withdrawn before slaughter, ractopamine is begun the days before slaughter and never withdrawn. No wonder there are concerns about "residue." Ractopamine is given to cattle for their last 28 to 42 days, pigs for their last 28 days and turkeys for their last seven to 14 days. Discovered as a livestock drug by researchers developing an asthma drug in laboratory mice, ractopamine increases muscle in livestock by "repartitioning" nutrients and slowing protein degradation.
Reports of ractopamine's lack of safety are not hard to find. In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) termed ractopamine a cardiac stimulator capable of causing undue stress and health risks in animals. "The use of highly active beta-agonists as growth promoters is not appropriate because of the potential hazard for human and animal health," said the journal Talanta unequivocally in 2010. And a report from Ottawa's Bureau of Veterinary Drugs says that rats fed ractopamine developed a constellation of birth defects like cleft palate, protruding tongue, short limbs, missing digits, open eyelids and enlarged heart. Let's put it in the human food supply!
Veterinary journals have noted increased "aggressiveness," animal "well- being" questions, and potential hazards "for human and animal health" with the use of ractopamine. Temple Grandin, PhD, the well-known animal expert, has raised welfare questions about the drug's effects on hard-to-handle pigs, "downer" pigs and hoof problems associated with the entire drug class.
In 2002, three years after ractopamine was approved for pigs, the FDA accused Elanco, Eli Lilly's animal subsidiary and the manufacturer of the drug, of withholding information about ractopamine's "safety and effectiveness" and "adverse animal drug experiences" in a 14 page warning letter. Elanco, said the FDA, failed to report furious farmers phoning the company about "dying animals," "downer pigs," animals "down and shaking," "hyperactivity," and "vomiting after eating feed with Paylean [the brand name of ractopamine for pigs" The company was also accused of suppressing clinical trial information.
If ractopamine were a drug for humans, the suppressed information would have forced Capitol Hill hearings, usage restrictions and possibly withdrawal from the market. But thanks to probable lobbying, the FDA proceeded to approve ractopamine for use in cattle the following year (2003) and for use in turkeys in 2009, despite the serious safety and transparency questions. In 2010, the FDA even enlarged feeding approvals for cattle. A full one-third of all meetings on the Food Safety and Inspection Service's posted public calendar during several months in 2009 were either with Elanco representatives or about ractopamine.