Ractopamine in pork: Is it safe?

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Home again, home again, but with drugs in our pig.

I felt compelled to chime in about today’s Consumer Reports announcement regarding their investigation of U.S. pork contamination. I agree that the safety of our food supply is critically important, and I am appreciative of independent groups that challenge our food safety assumptions.  However, the collective media is choosing to report on only one aspect of this report: bacterial contamination. Certainly we don’t want harmful microbes in our food, but what about potentially harmful drugs?  The media has given scant attention to another important finding in the report: one-fifth of the Consumer Reports‘ pork samples were tainted with low levels of the drug, ractopamine.

Before I delve further into why I am concerned about this finding, let me preface my comments by stating that my research is going straight to the source on this. The facts I am presenting here come from the National Library of Medicine’s Toxicology Data Network, TOXnet, the original and supplemental New Animal Drug Application (NADA) for ractopamine, and a report prepared by the European Food Safety Authority evaluating the drug’s safety. You’ll note that the hyperlinks to the reports are embedded in this blog posting, should you want to examine the evidence for yourself.

I am concerned about the evidence, or rather, the LACK of evidence we have about ractopamine’s safety in our food supply. Do you know how many studies have been done about ractopamine’s safety, using humans rather than model organisms? One. Do you know how many people were enrolled in that study? Six.  You read that correctly… six… and they were all adult men.  Now, that sample size might be appropriate as a preliminary study, perhaps to establish a suitable dose for a larger double-blinded study. But to establish a level of ractopamine residue that is safe for human consumption? I think you and I would agree that it isn’t, even though that is indeed what was presented to the FDA in the application for ractopamine’s approval.  And who conducted this single study? Elanco Animal Health, a division of Eli Lilly and Company – the developers of the Paylean (ractopamine) feed additive.

Why should you be concerned? Ractopamine is in a class of drugs called beta agonists. Although there are many effects of beta-receptor activation, the most notable include an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, stimulation of ghrelin (a hunger hormone) release from the stomach, and promotion of lipid metabolism. It is this latter effect that makes it such a great feed additive for pigs, as it increases the pig’s overall rate of weight gain, while at the same time creating more lean meat.

But it is those former two effects on heart rate and hunger that first piqued my interest in ractopamine. I love to eat pork, but have often thought of giving it up. Sometimes when I eat pork, my heart races and pounds uncontrollably. I feel insatiably hungry, even though I’ve just eaten. It couldn’t be a pork allergy, because there are many times I eat pork and feel fine. For a while, I chalked it up to antibiotic residues in pork, since I do have an allergy to Sulfa drugs, which are also used in commercial pork production. But if it were an allergy to these antibiotics (which also commonly exceed FDA thresholds, by the way), I should get a rash or have gastrointestinal symptoms.

Wanting to know more about what could be in pork, I started researching drugs used in commercial pork production. I discovered ractopamine a few months ago, and all of the symptoms I was experiencing were right in line with getting a dose of a beta agonist.  I would imagine there are other people out there with similar experiences, but I’m sure we all vary in our tolerance. As for me, I’m very petite, and always react strongly to any drug in my system. NyQuil keeps me up at night. If the label states, “may cause nervousness and excitability in children,” you can bet I’ll be climbing the walls if I take it.

Eating pork is like Russian roulette for me, and I am convinced that the occasional ractopamine-contaminated pork on my plate is the reason why. Remember that single, six-person study that “established” the “safe” level for ractopamine in our food supply? One participant was withdrawn from the study due to “adverse cardiac effects.” No serious adverse events were reported, but the men reported “sensations of increase in heart rate” and “heart pounding.” Granted, we can’t say with certainty if the doses they received are equivalent to what we consume in contaminated pork, but it certainly calls into question how thoroughly ractopamine was evaluated.

There is much more about ractopamine that I could talk about: What might ractopamine-contaminated meat mean to the health of special populations that would be most sensitive to the drug? Does ractopamine-laced pork stimulate ghrelin and modulate lipid metabolism in humans, thus serving as one of MANY factors contributing to obesity in America? And what about the pigs, darn it?! There is plenty of evidence to show that it isn’t incredibly healthy for them either.

But I don’t need to and shouldn’t talk about those things here, because there is much we simply don’t know about ractopamine, which is ENTIRELY MY POINT.

The European Food Safety Authority weighed the evidence in 2009, and does not allow ractopamine in animal feed. China and Taiwan have zero-tolerance policies. Other countries prohibit ractopamine in their food supply until more evidence is gathered and evaluated – why don’t we?

Now, I want to be clear that I’m not a conspiracy theorist that thinks all of big Ag or big Pharma is out to get us. I support Ag research, I have a doctorate from a College of Agriculture, and my husband’s family farmed and raised feeder pigs for many years. But after navigating food labels for a few years, trying to keep my celiac family safe from gluten, I am understandably wary of food processing and food labeling practices in the United States.

And when it comes to drugs like ractopamine in our food supply, I am simply amazed that a drug so controversial is being allowed into our food.


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