Drugs are mainstay of meat production across globe; practices put profit ahead of human or animal health

When cooking chicken, or meat, for one’s family, most people are very careful to wash and cook the flesh properly. Unfortunately, there are some things which any amount of washing, boiling or roasting cannot clean out – and those are drugs.

Maneka Gandhi March 12, 2019 21:45:24 IST
Drugs are mainstay of meat production across globe; practices put profit ahead of human or animal health
  • Indian producers have adopted western practices of meat production that put profit far ahead of animal or human health

  • Ractopamine is one of the main drugs which is pumped into animals to make them more muscular, reduce fat content and increase the profit per animal

  • Glyphosate is another contaminant which finds its way to meat because of its use in weed killers

When cooking chicken, or meat, for one’s family, most people are very careful to wash and cook the flesh properly. Unfortunately, there are some things which any amount of washing, boiling or roasting cannot clean out – and those are drugs.

There is a cocktail of drugs in your meat and all of them will get inside your body upon consumption. These drugs are a mainstay of meat production in many parts of the world, and Indian producers have adopted western practices of food production that put profit far ahead of animal or human health.

In 2018, India produced 4.3 million tonnes of buffalo ('carabeef') and cattle (beef) – 1.5 percent higher than 2017. Chicken meat increased from 1.9 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 3.46 million tonnes in 2016-17. Goat meat increased from 0.97 million tonnes in 2013-14 to 1.4 million tonnes in 2016-17. Sheep increased to 0.5 million tonnes. This means an estimated 238 crore chickens and 1.2 crore pigs were slaughtered for their meat in 2016-17 and a grand total of over 10 million tonnes of meat was produced.

Drugs are mainstay of meat production across globe practices put profit ahead of human or animal health

Representational image. Reuters

How does a meat producer get so many crores of animals to kill, and how does he get them to put on weight in the quickest possible time to get more meat? Moreover, how does he do this without spending money on feed? The answer is that he pumps drugs into these animals.

One of the main drugs is Ractopamine, which was approved by the FDA in 2003. Ractopamine is a beta-agonist drug. Beta agonists bind themselves to fat and muscle cells in the animals' body, reducing the metabolism of fat while increasing the size of muscle fibres. Consequently, less fat is produced and less fat is stored in the carcass. Muscle fibre size replaces some of the weight normally found from fat, and the total carcass contains a higher percentage of lean muscle. This makes the animal more muscular, reduces fat content and increases the profit per animal, because the same amount of food produces a much bigger animal with more meat on its bones.

However, as much as 20 percent of Ractopamine can remain in the meat by the time it reaches our plates.

In fact, the residue in humans can be so high that it could even be detected in a dope test! Internationally-acclaimed cyclist Alberto Contador failed a Tour de France anti-doping test in 2010 for levels of Clenbuterol (a drug of the family of Ractopamine), which he had gotten from eating meat.

Ractopamine is used in the USA but has been banned in the European Union, China, Russia and 160 other countries for being dangerous to both animals and human consumers. Taiwan has in fact banned American beef imports because of Ractopamine usage. However, the drug is commonly given to animals in India.

In animals, Ractopamine is known to cause reproductive dysfunction, hyperactivity, broken limbs, and birth defects such as short limbs, missing or fused digits, open eyelids, enlarged hearts, stress, lameness and premature death. How could an animal, that is itself so sick, possibly give good quality meat?

In human medicine, beta-agonists are inhaled directly into lungs of asthma patients to relax muscles that constrict airways; they are routinely used on smooth muscle tissue through direct entry into the cardiopulmonary system, and pregnant women who are in premature labour have beta-agonists injected into their blood to relax the muscle tissue of the uterus, preventing premature births.

However, if eaten through food, Ractopamine (Optaflexx) has been linked to increased heart rates, high arterial blood pressure, chromosomal abnormalities, anxiety, intoxication, tremors, headaches, muscle spasms and many more serious effects. This poses a particular risk to children, or people with cardiovascular disease.

Considered even worse than Ractopamine is another alarming beta-agonist drug used in animal production to increase weight – Zilmax or Zilpaterol.

Zilmax was approved by the FDA in 2006. Cattle and pig feeders use feed additives like Zilmax to increase the rate of weight gain without any additional feed. The drug can add many pounds of meat to a bull or buffalo. The Encyclopedia of Meat Science (Dikeman and Devine; 2004) reported Optaflexx increased average daily gain by 15 to 25 percent with no additional feed intake. Slightly higher results are shown for Zilmax.

An estimated 700 million pigs receive beta-agonist drugs, each producing six additional pounds of pork. However, this comes with a trade off. Zilmax has been known to cause severe reactions in animals leading to painful hoof loss and, very commonly, death. Since the drug was introduced in 2007 in the US, several hundred cattle have unexpectedly died after being fed Zilmax.

In fact, in just two years after Zilmax’s introduction, the number of cattle euthanized at meat production farms rose by 175 percent from previous years. The makers of Zilmax, Merck and Co, recruited animal welfare specialist, Dr Temple Grandin, to help review the product in 2013. In an interview with Reuters, Grandin indicated there have been incidents of stiffness, soreness, and heat stress in animals since the use of beta-agonists began.

Zilmax is considered to be about 125 times more potent and dangerous than Ractopamine, and this is likely the reason why side effects in Ractopamine studies are often overlooked when compared with the destructive power of Zilmax. About 60 to 80 percent of feedlot cattle in the US are fed beta agonists. America refuses to remove beta agonists from cattle feed. The reason? Stopping their use will result in each animal carcass being about 10-15 pounds less – a total of 0.5 billion pounds of beef, or about 1 to 1.5 percent of production. More corn will be needed to feed cattle to reach the same weight. This will raise the prices of the rest of the beef.

Another contaminant hiding in meat is glyphosate. It is the active ingredient in 'Roundup' (made by Monsanto) – one of the most widely used weed killers in India. In 2014-15, the consumption of glyphosate was 148 million tonnes in the country, the highest for any herbicide. These crops are fed to animals and you eat the animal’s meat, which comes with glyphosate.

Studies around the world have shown glyphosate causes cancer, genetic mutations and disrupt endocrine functions in human consumers. It is toxic to our DNA even when diluted to concentrations 450-times lower than what is allowed in agricultural use. This is not a drug to be taken lightly. The direct deaths of humans from pesticides have been estimated at 7,000 in 2015 and is increasing every year. Yet, no one has related the deaths from cancer from eating the same pesticides in meat.

The use of glyphosate is permitted only for one crop: tea. But it is sold by dealers all over India where no tea is grown. It is used also for cotton which is sold for cattle feed. And the more BT cotton is grown, the more glyphosate is used.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that exposure to glyphosate in the US, where GM crops were introduced in the early 1990s, increased almost five times in a 23-year time span.

Animal meat producers use over 450 animal drugs, drug combinations and feed additives to promote growth of animals and suppress the negative effects of confined and unhygienic conditions in animal factories. Apart from the ones above, synthetic hormones, such as zeranol, trenbolone acetate and melengestrol acetate, are commonly used. These have been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer in humans. In India, it is also common to feed chickens with arsenic to help them get fatter faster and develop a better colour. This arsenic, too, reaches your plate through chicken meat.

Are you eating meat or a body which during its lifetime bore little resemblance to the animal it was supposed to be? Do you eat food to be healthy or to get sick?

There is a need for safer food. The industry is demand-driven. Producers will only be forced to stop wrong practices if people show unwillingness to eat dirty, chemical-treated meat.

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