U.S., Europe Lock Horns in Beef Hormone Debate
Friday, April 9, 1999

Food: As trade war looms, Washington and ranchers call treatments safe;
EU says public health is at stake.
By PAUL JACOBS, LA Times Staff Writer

For more than four decades,
American ranchers and farmers
have been injecting tiny pellets
of hormones into the ears of
cattle raised for beef.
The drugs, delivered with
needle-tipped guns, are sex hormones
sold under such names as Steer-Oid,
Ralgro and Synovex, and they
make the animals grow faster and
produce more meat for every
dollar spent on grain and hay.
The procedure, which is as quick
as a vaccination, has become
routine in the U.S., where three out
of four cattle raised for beef are
treated with one or more hormones.
But it won't be routine in Europe
any time soon. Not only is the
practice illegal there, but the
European Union has refused for a
decade to permit imports of beef from
hormone-treated cattle.
Now the transatlantic beef has
brought the United States and the
EU to the brink of a trade war,
joining bananas on what is
becoming a full plate of U.S.-Europe
trade disputes.
Acting on behalf of the
$36-billion-a-year U.S. cattle industry,
Washington is threatening to retaliate
with tariffs on selected
European products unless the EU lifts
its beef ban by May 13, as it
has been ordered to do by the World
Trade Organization.
The Europeans claim the ban is a
matter of protecting consumer
health; U.S. officials and cattle
ranchers call it a pretext for
old-fashioned protectionism.
Just how safe are these hormones
used to bring steaks, roasts
and hamburgers to American tables, at
prices that European
consumers would envy?
A number of international health
bodies have reviewed the
evidence and sided with the U.S.
But the hotly disputed issue
illustrates how hard it is to sort out
conflicting health claims when the
science is complex and those
interpreting it often reach
conclusions that serve their own political
and economic agendas.

Natural Hormone Levels Are High
The U.S. government insists that
hormones, when used properly
in beef production, are perfectly
safe. Indeed, three of the six
hormones that can legally be used to
promote U.S. livestock growth
occur naturally in humans and
The natural levels are so high
that small increases in treated
animals are almost impossible to
detect and are likely to have no
effect on health, federal officials
say. That's also the position taken
by several international bodies,
including the WTO and even a
scientific panel assembled by the
"What often is not recognized is
that the [natural] levels that are
found in other animal foods, such as
eggs or milk or butter, are
substantially higher than those that
occur in animal tissue as a result
of use of these hormones," said
Richard Ellis, director of scientific
research oversight for the U.S.
Department of Agriculture.
Plants also produce the
equivalent of sex hormones--soybeans
and wheat germ contain very high
levels of plant estrogens.
Comforting as this may seem, all
three naturally occurring
hormones approved for treating cattle
have long been on state and
federal lists of chemicals known to
cause cancer. Large doses
increase cancer rates in laboratory
animals. In women, increased
exposure to estrogen--through birth
control pills or treatment for
menopause--does somewhat increase the
risk of breast cancer and
other tumors, according to the
National Cancer Institute.
Dr. Samuel S. Epstein of the
University of Illinois School of
Public Health contends that adding
small amounts of sex hormones
to the human diet is cause for
concern, especially for young children
whose bodies produce relatively low
Epstein has been a consultant to
the Europeans and to several
American public-interest groups that
support the ban on hormones
in beef production.
"The question we ought to be
asking is not why Europe won't
buy our hormone-treated meat," Epstein
has written, "but why we
allow beef from hormone-treated cattle
to be sold to American and
Canadian consumers."
Combinations of sex hormones
allow the animals to extract more
nutrients from their feed and allow
them to gain weight and add
muscle faster than without the drugs.
And the hormones have a
calming effect on animals crowded into
feedlots, where most of the
35 million U.S. cattle slaughtered
each year are raised.
The Food and Drug Administration
allows the use of natural
hormones--estradiol, progesterone and
testosterone--and their
synthetic counterparts, zeranol,
melengestrol acetate and
trenbolone--to promote livestock
growth. Most of the drugs are
administered in slow-release pellets
that are implanted under the
skin of the animal's ear so they won't
contaminate the beef itself.
The one exception, melengestrol, is
added to feed.
The treatments are relatively
inexpensive, and treated animals
gain an extra 2 or 3 pounds per week,
cutting costs by as much as
$80 per steer, according to the
National Cattlemen's Beef Assn.
American experts say U.S.
practices also result in beef that is
tastier, juicier and more tender than
its European counterpart.
They say Europeans--who
traditionally get their beef from aging
bulls and dairy cows--are sometimes
subjected to far higher
amounts of natural sex hormones than
they would get from U.S.
Americans point out that a
slaughtered bull, for example, can
have 10 times more natural
testosterone in its flesh than a treated
steer. (Most U.S. beef comes from
castrated male
cattle--steers--or from young females
raised specifically for meat
The USDA's Ellis says that at
worst, estrogen levels in beef from
treated cattle are, on average, 3%
higher than the meat from an
untreated animal. For testosterone and
progesterone, the
differences are less than one-tenth of
U.S. groups that support the
European ban cite industry studies
submitted to the FDA that show
estrogens and other hormones in
treated meat are several times higher
than those in untreated meat.
Ellis responds that these peak
levels were measured 15 days
after implantation--long before the
hormone pellets were depleted
and the animals slaughtered. "What is
really going to consumers,
that's what counts," he said.

Small Amounts Can 'Disturb the
But Epstein argues that even
small amounts can "disturb the
natural balance by shifting pathways
of metabolism." It could have a
marked effect "on a kid of 8 who
consumes two or three
hamburgers a day," said Epstein, who
chairs the Cancer Prevention
And he said the U.S. government
has done little to monitor
hormone levels in meat.
A USDA spokesperson confirmed
that the agency has never
tested for the natural hormones and
has done only sporadic testing
of the synthetic ones, almost all of
it before 1990. Other officials say
they choose to spend their limited
funds monitoring pesticides and
other chemicals they believe pose a
bigger health risk.
Ellis says there is no point in
testing for natural hormones, which
are present in beef in widely varying
amounts regardless of whether
the animal has been treated.
However, when the department
tested for zeranol in 1989, it
found amounts in excess of permitted
levels in 16 out of 134 beef
samples tested, the USDA spokesperson
said. But that same year,
the FDA revised its calculations of
how much residue would be
safe--and concluded that the small
amounts that might remain in
beef posed no health risk.
A history of past assurances and
miscalculations dogs the
arguments of the beef industry and its
For years, diethylstilbestrol, or
DES--a synthetic estrogen--was
used to boost growth in cattle, sheep
and poultry.
The same drug was widely used to
prevent miscarriages in
women until the late 1960s, when the
drug was linked to a rare
cancer in the daughters of treated
mothers and to a possible
increase in cancer in the mothers.
Low DES levels were found in
beef, but the industry fought to
keep the drug available on grounds
that the amounts were low
enough to be safe and that dropping
the drug would be an
economic catastrophe. In 1979,
however, the FDA pulled it from
the market.
But illegal use continued,
despite the ban in the U.S. and most
other countries. The drug showed up in
baby food in Italy in 1980,
for example. Infant girls who consumed
the tainted meat reportedly
developed breasts and began
About the same time, there were
prosecutions in the U.S. for
illegal use of the drug in cattle.
Against that backdrop, the
Europeans outlawed the use of all
growth-promoting hormones in cattle
raised in EU nations but
delayed an import ban until January
The Europeans do allow U.S. beef
that is certified as
hormone-free. A few American producers
sell about $40 million a
year of beef to the EU. But without
the ban, sales would be $500
million or more, said Dana Hauck, a
Kansas farmer and cattleman.
Hauck believes Europeans would
devour American beef
because of its high quality and
relatively low price. The cattlemen's
group cites USDA statistics showing
that the cost of raising cattle is
30% to 100% higher in European
countries than in the U.S.
"Basically, the controversy is
about trade restrictions; it is not
about health," said John Keeling, vice
president of the Animal
Health Institute, which represents the
drug manufacturers. "The
Europeans don't want our products and
they will use whatever
pseudoscientific argument they can
come up with."
Even the U.S. groups that support
the European ban admit they
can't prove the hormones hurt
Said J. Martin Wagner, a lawyer
with the Earthjustice Legal
Defense Fund, which represented
several organizations before the
WTO: "There is sufficient scientific
evidence to support a finding
that these things present a risk,
which means a possibility of harm,
and that should be sufficient for a
government to take protective
Meanwhile, as the beef case heads
toward a showdown in May,
a transatlantic banana war has already
begun. The WTO this week
authorized U.S. tariffs on nearly $200
million worth of European
products in retaliation for barriers
against bananas grown by U.S.

Copyright 1999 Los Angeles Times.