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U.S. Policy Turns Blind Side to Dangers of Meat Additives

Austin American-Statesman, March 8, 1989, p. A15


The United States is alone among other meat-exporting countries, including Argentina and Australia, in accusing the European Economic Community of unfair trade practices in its Jan. 1 ban of hormone-treated U.S. meat and threatening retaliatory sanctions. These actions ignore questions on the dangers of contaminated meat that concern European consumers who pressured the EEC into banning hormones additives two years ago.

Growth-promoting additives, fed or implanted in ears of U.S. cattle, are synthetic non-steroids, such as Zeranol; natural sex steroids, such as estrogen; or pituitary hormones, such as somatotropins. Although the carcinogenicity of the synthetic DES in test animals was known by 1938, its use was approved in 1947 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Repeated congressional hearings on DES led to the 1958 Delaney law, banning the deliberate addition to food of any level of carcinogens, reflecting the scientific consensus that there is no way of setting safe levels for carcinogens. Nevertheless, continued use of DES was allowed on the alleged grounds that this did not result in detectable residues in meat products, and that Delaney could not be applied retroactively. In spite of infrequent federal sampling, residues were found at levels higher than those inducing cancer experimentally. Vaginal cancers were reported in daughters of women treated with DES in pregnancy by 1971, when DES-treated meat was banned in 20 foreign countries. However, misleading assurances of safety by the FDA and the USDA, including suppression of residue data, stonewalled an U.S. ban until 1979.

The industry then switched to other carcinogenic additives, particularly naturalhormones. Unlike the synthetic DES whose residues can be monitored and whose use was conditional on seven days' pre-slaughter, withdrawal, natural hormone residues are not detectable as they cannot be routinely differentiated form hormones produced in the body. Since 1983, the FDA has allowedunregulated use of these additives right up to slaughter, subject only to the non-enforceable requirement that meat residues must be under 1 percent of children's daily hormonal production.

The dangers of hormone additives were signaled by an epidemic of premature sexual development and ovarian cysts in 3,000 Puerto Rican infants and children from 1979 to 1981. These effects were traced to contamination of meat and were reversed by dietary changes. Using research techniques, meat products were found highly contaminated with estrogens, and Zeranol and excess estrogens were found in the blood of afflicted children. This epidemic also was associated with increased uterine and ovarian cancers in adults.

More than a decade ago, Roy Hertz then director of endocrinology of the National Cancer Institute and a leading authority on hormonal cancer, warned of the carcinogenic risks of estrogenic additives which can increase and imbalance normal hormonal levels. Hetz also warned of uncontrolled use of these potent carcinogens, no dietary levels of which are safe--part pertrillion estrogen levels in a dime-size piece of meat contain billions of trillions of molecules.

All Americans from conception till death consume unknown amounts of hormones in meat products without warning or labeling. In 1986, half the cattle sampled had hormones illegally implanted in muscle, resulting in high residues which the FDA admitted could result in "adverse effects." Unanswered is whether such estrogen dosage is involved in increasing cancers now striking one in three Americans, particularly the 50 percent increase in breast cancer since 1965. This is of further concern in view of recent confirmation of the associations between breast cancer and oral contraceptives, whose estrogen dosage over a fraction of a lifetime is known and controlled.

Hormones are part of larger problems of thousands of other feed additives, including antibiotics, tranquilizers, pesticides, drugs, flavors and industrial wastes. The runaway technologies of meat and pharmaceutical industries are supported by academic consultants, contractees, lobbyists and revolving doors between industry and regulatory agencies. This was personified by Reagan agriculture secretaries John Block, a former Illinois hog farmer, and Richard Lyng, former head of the American Meat Institute.

As evidence in Government Accounting Office investigations and congressional hearings, USDA and FDA regulation is in near-total disarray, aggravated by denials and cover-ups. A January 1986 House Committee on Government Operations report, "Human Food Safety and the Regulation of animal Drugs", concluded AFDA has consistently disregarded its responsibility -- repeatedly put what it perceives are interests of veterinarians and the livestock industry ahead of its legal obligation to protect consumers -- jeopardizing the health and safety of consumers of meat milk and poultry. "Most additives are used without evidence of efficacy, monitoring methods and minimal safety of consumers of meat, milk and poultry." Most additives are used without evidence of efficacy; monitoring methods and minimal safety data. The hazards of U.S. meat have retrogressed from random fecal and bacterial contamination of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle to the brave new world of deliberate chemicalization.

Any trade basis for the EEC embargo is unlikely, in view of tough regulations against hormones in European beef. Contrary to a "Public forum" piece by Dr. Rodney L. Preston in the Austin American Statesman, Feb. 22, EEC's 1985 Scientific Risk Assessment Committee recommended against continued use of synthetic hormones and emphasized the need to further evaluate natural hormones. Rather than finger-pointing at Europe, the embargo should prompt high-level investigation and reform of regulation and industry practices. The administration also raises problems of dual standard in view of its 1987 ban on Australian beef imports on grounds of excess residues of the carcinogenic pesticide heptachlor.

Hormonal and other carcinogenic additives should be banned immediately, as should be all additives absent evidence on efficacy and safety. Additives use and residue levels in meat products, including milk and eggs, should also be subject to explicit labeling requirements.

Until then, state initiatives, such as the "Texas Plan," establishing hormone-free certification for European shipments, should be applauded and extended domestically. Meanwhile, consumers should boycott chemicalized in favor of organic meat, and insist on the right to know which additives have been used and their residues. Consumers should further demand independent certification and verification for hormones and other additives, such as the California Nutri-Clean program for testing pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables, available in 600 supermarkets nationwide.


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