Sep 05, AU edition
There’s nothing more red-blooded than a juicy slab of steak, but BARBARA SUMNER-BURSTYN reports that a female sex hormone linked to ‘gay’ behaviour in animals and adverse effects on children is being pumped into some of our beef cattle – without being disclosed on food packaging labels
Butchers dancing like Hari Krishnas, senior citizens thrashing out hard rock extolling its virtues, meat, especially red meat is hot right now. After years of slow decline prompted by health concerns about cholesterol and ‘lighter eating’ trends, Australia’s meat producers are staging a comeback. By doing everything from rolling back health concerns – pointing out, for example, that lean red meat is less than five per cent fat, and pushing it as a source of iron for potentially anaemic women – to reviving traditional steakhouse dining, meat producers, distributors and sellers are working hard to get back on our plates.
But like ‘fog facts’ – important things known but not known that nobody seems able to focus on anymore – described in Larry Beinhart’s book, ‘Fog Facts’ Politics: What We Don’t Know and Why We Don’t Know It, there’s more going on in the paddocks than just grass munching.
Hormone Growth Promotants for example. Known in the industry as HGPs, the official line is that the sex hormones implanted into the ears of cattle are natural or nature identical substances that simply replicate nature, mimicking the hormones lost through castration and equating to other natural dietary sources of hormones such as eggs or soybeans. And, for the most part, Australians don’t know that these substances are going into their meat – despite HGPs being banned in the EU, a fact which has spawned complex record-keeping and audit trail arrangements to make sure no meat from HGP cattle makes it to Europe.
Question your butcher about HGP’s and he’ll probably look at you blankly – and labels will tell you precious little more. Yet they have been used routinely in Australian beef production since 1979 – and have until recently been thought to be an effective way to improve growth rates and feed efficiency in the stockyards. A $3
implant, for example, can generate up to $25-$30 worth of extra cow at the market.
Across the Tasman, the New Zealand Food Safety Authority recently endorsed food labelling to ensure informed choice, but that call has recently disappeared from the agency’s website. When questioned about the presence of artificial hormones in New Zealand’s meat chain and the lack of labelling Sandra Daly, Director of Communications, said that they are a science-based organisation and based on the scientific evidence, there is no consumer protection basis for banning HGP use for beef production for New Zealand.
Australia endorses that position. In a major report, the Australian Department of Health and Aging found that the human safety and toxicology of HGP’s have been extensively assessed by regulatory authorities in Australia, the USA, Canada and New Zealand, in addition to expert scientific committees from the World Health Organisation. The NZFSA says the report forms a part of the information New Zealand considers in developing their views on HGPs. They comment that all international bodies and national regulatory agencies accept the safety data that residues of registered hormones do not pose a threat to consumers.
All that is, except the European Union. The use of HGPs was banned by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, in 1988. The WTO responded that the ban was unscientific. In 2003 the EU completed a full scientific risk assessment, re-evaluating the potential risks to human health from hormone residues. This resulted in the permanent prohibition of estradiol 17ß. Their so-called ‘precautionary’
approach extends to five hormones (testosterone, progesterone, trembolone acetate, zeranol and melengestrol acetate) that have now been provisionally prohibited. In addition to estradiol 17ß there are seven registered HGP’s in Australia including those containing progesterone and trembolone acetate.
In banning HGP’s the EU say they have considered all social, economic and political factors. They concluded that estradiol 17ß was a ‘complete’ carcinogen and that others such as trembolone acetate, the synthetic equivalent of testosterone, should be viewed as having potentially endocrine-disrupting, developmental, immunological, neurobiological, immunotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects. The EU claims there is a lack of data to support an alternative view. They also contend that despite the WTO rulings there is limited information available on the levels of the various metabolites, or breakdown products, despite this information being relevant.
The EU also suggests that young children may be more sensitive to low levels of the hormones than previously thought. The authors conclude that in light of recent progress in our understanding of estrogen levels in children, possible adverse effects on human health by consumption of meat from estrogen-treated animals cannot be excluded.
The WTO has consistently ruled against the EU. Despite WTO-approved retaliatory economic trade sanctions imposed by the United States, the EU continues to defy orders to lift the ban. EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy stated in November last year that the EU ban on certain HGPs was based on a thorough and independent scientific risk assessment.
The approach exercised by the EU appears to be echoed by a leading comparative cancer research programme at Cornell University in the United States. They say that while there’s no evidence to suggest that eating meat from hormone-treated animals affects breast cancer risks, a conclusion on lack of human health effect can only be made after large-scale studies to compare the health of people who eat HGP meat to people who don’t. These have never been done. Cornell also acknowledges that large epidemiological studies have never been done to assess whether or not early puberty in developing girls is associated with having eaten growth hormone-treated foods.
The Australian report concludes that even with the EU’s latest data supporting the ban they can find no grounds for amending Australia’s regulatory position on HGPs. New Zealand takes the same position.
Derek Moore, New Zealand manager for Elanco, the makers of Compudose, one of the most widely used HGPs in New Zealand, is verbose in his dismissal of any concerns surrounding the products: ‘There is no question that the EU position is a form of trade embargo and market protectionism. It’s a non-tariff trade barrier.’ Moore goes on to describe the precautionary principal (the EU’s better-safe-than-sorry approach to implementing health regulations) as entirely arbitrary. ‘I give it no weight’, he said and added that the science in favour of HGPs was so unequivocal that there was really only one side to this issue, the side of the facts.
Compudose is a controlled-release estradiol. The package insert says Estradiol 17ß is a naturally-occurring substance. In the material safety data sheet published by Elanco, the emergency overview for the product states that estradiol may enter the body through the skin, causes cancer and is highly potent. Fetal changes, reproductive tissue damage, mental disorders are also mentioned, as are increased breast size and other feminizing effects in males occupationally exposed to estrogens. The published warning for the product says that even intermittent absorption of small amounts of estrogen through the skin may result in accumulation of relatively high systemic levels with concomitant negative health effects on children whose parents work with estrogen products. (3) Elanco, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, is at pains to point out that its product does not pose any health risk, either to those handling the product or to consumers who ultimately eat the implanted meat. ‘The data is pointing out the hazards of exposure,’ says Moore, ‘that is entirely different from the risk.’
Compudose is implanted only in the skin immediately beneath the ear of a cattle beast. Disposal of ears of implanted cattle is an issue. NZFSA says they are discarded as waste, rendered or used in gelatin production. Gelatin is made from skin (pigskin and hide split) and bone taken from slaughtered animals that have been approved for human consumption. The resulting gelatin is then used in a plethora of locally produced products. A report by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) said that failure to discard implanted ears could lead to mg amounts of hormone residues to enter the food chain and cause acute toxicity in consumers. The NZFSA responds that Australia allows HGP implantation in other parts of the body. But as Elanco New Zealand points out, the product and all product use guidelines are the same as in New Zealand. Martin Holmes, a spokesperson for the APVMA says that, as in New Zealand, Compudose is implanted only in the ear.
A further issue is the use of antibiotics. Elanco acknowledges that the implant may be dusted with the antibiotic tetracycline. Derek Moore is unsure if the local version contains any antibiotic. He suggests that perhaps the implant is coated in talcum powder.
In the United States the needle used to insert the implant is also often coated with an antibiotic. Vet Services in the Hawkes Bay are adamant they do not use antibiotics to cleanse needles. But either way the trace use of an antibiotic for non-therapeutic purposes is concerning. In the United States a bill currently before the US House of Representatives (The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2005) stated that non-therapeutic overuse of antibiotics in animals was creating severe antibiotic resistance in people. The task force cautioned that if current trends continue, treatments for common infections could become nonexistent. Again the EU is at the forefront of precautionary measures, banning the use of all non-therapeutic veterinary antibiotics identified as similar or identical to those used in humans. Elanco says it has yet to be demonstrated that non-therapeutic use of antibiotics has a detrimental effect on humans.
So why use HGPs at all? The industry calls them ‘quality enhancers’. In one local trial cattle treated with Compudose had an average weight increase of 23.5%. Cattle treated with HGPs grow faster enabling them to be sent to the works in shorter time, lowering the farmer cost of beef raising. It’s estimated that for every dollar spent on an HGP there is a five-dollar return.
Because of the EU ban and restrictions in nine other countries considered minor markets HGPs are strictly controlled in Australia . They include identification prior to or immediately after implantation, double-tagging, strict dose notation, a level of paper work that one vet described as onerous, implantation by trained and certified implanters and a requirement that all lost tags be replaced immediately. Once HGP cattle reach the works they must be separated from other animals and either killed in a separate area or only after all the equipment is completely cleansed. Abattoir workers spoken to described the processes as time-consuming.
Perhaps the most salient point for Australian meat consumers is the fact that all identification procedures and separation effort is designed solely to protect our standing with the EU. ‘There is no emphasis on ensuring the local market can access non-HGP meat,’ admits the NZFSA. They advise that there are three main mechanisms for post-slaughter separation and identification. Organics such as those run by Biogro, the New Zealand Beef and Lamb Marketing Bureau’s domestic Quality Mark and Qualmark. (Qualmark reports that they do not certify meat)
Such is the adherence to the ‘science’ of HGPs and the belief that the EU ban is nothing more than market protectionism, the only risk acknowledged by the NZFSA is a trade risk. Implanted animals in Australia and New Zealand are not tested for residues of any of the registered HGPs. Instead up to 450 non-implanted cattle are tested to ensure compliance with the identification regulations to protect the export market.
NZ Food Safety Authority director of animal products Tony Zohrab was reported recently as saying any decision on the use of HGPs is very much a commercial one between farmers and processors. The organisations official position is that while consumer perception obviously plays a role in decision-making, wherever possible, when that perception is at odds with scientific evidence, they prefer consumer education to scientifically unjustified regulation.
Elanco’s Derek Moore says their own consumer research shows people want safe and affordable food. ‘The use of HGPs and antibiotics in animal production is of very low concern.’ And he comments that banning things is unacceptable in our modern marketplace.
He’s right of course. HGPs should not be banned. The tracking and status of HGP cattle in Australia is comprehensive and effective. Labeling for the local market is no more commercially onerous than separation for the European market. Consumer choice is promoted as the ultimate freedom. It is the market that must test the validity of claims in support of HGPs. It is the market that must sort out whether consumers really want to eat meat grown with growth promoting hormones.
THE LESBIAN GULLS
The issue of estrogen in the diet is a controversial one. Scientists have discovered a number of foods – most notably soy – that contain high levels of phytoestrogens, the plant equivalent of the female sex hormone.
Although initially dismissed by some as ‘soy conspiracy theory’, research on the effects of phytoestrogens and other estrogen compounds on human sexual development is now widespread, particularly because of soy’s use as a milk substitute for infants.
New Scientist magazine reported two years ago that girls raised on soy infant formula are more likely to suffer menstrual discomfort, and boys born to vegetarian mothers are five times more likely to suffer genital abnormalities. Other studies have reinforced suspicions about diets high in phytoestrogens, and some scientists now believe there’s evidence that they could be a factor in causing homosexuality.
The first evidence came in from the animal kingdom, as Science News online reported:
‘While the health community has recently begun a host of studies to explore a possible link between estrogenic pollutants and cancers in women, few researchers have focused on the related reproductive risks such environmental hormones may pose for both sexes. That’s unfortunate says Theo Colborn, a zoologist with the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., because reproductive effects are likely to be ‘much more widespread.’
‘Indeed, she notes, animal data are beginning to suggest that far smaller exposures are needed to trigger reproductive effects than to induce cancers. And because some of these reproductive changes may be subtle, they could evade detection for decades – even a lifetime – unless hunted for explicitly.
‘Colborn has convened a number of symposia in the past few years for researchers who study reproductively impaired wildlife populations or laboratory animals exposed to environmental hormones. Most of these scientists, she says, describe the links they’re finding between impaired reproduction and ‘hormonal’ pollutants as sobering – if not downright scary.
‘Indeed, she and many other environmental scientists worry that if hormone-like contaminants can feminize male animals, these ubiquitous pollutants may also underlie troubling reproductive-system trends being witnessed in men.’
A University of California, Davis, study by avian toxicologist Michael Fry in the 1980s determined that estrogenic pollution lay behind the ‘lesbian behaviour’ of seagulls. Significantly, to test their theory, they injected normal seagull eggs with estradiol, the additive being pumped into some New Zealand and Australian beef.
‘To connect these effects with estrogenic pollutants, Fry and his colleagues conducted a number of experiments during the 1980s. In one, they injected eggs of contaminant-free gulls with estradiol…When the hatchlings emerged, they exhibited the same array of feminized sex organs as DDT-contaminated Western gulls on Santa Barbara Island, off the coast of California.’
The estradiol, and a range of other estrogenic pollutants like DDT, effectively ‘chemically castrated’ the males, Fry says.
As Science News reported: ‘He suspects the males’ likely lack of interest in mating explains not only why female gulls dominated Santa Barbara Island’s breeding colony in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but also why the females cohabited.’
Increasingly, scientists suspect environmental hormone pollutants caused by human agriculture and industrial waste are working into the animal food chain and creating more instances of so-called ‘gay behaviour’ by animals.
Indeed, the debate over whether homosexuality is genetic, or a lifestyle choice, has raged for decades. But increasingly scientists are discovering evidence pointing to a more complex answer, and one which the estrogen controversy could shed some light on.
If homosexuality were truly an inherited genetic condition, it should have disappeared from the human gene pool thousands of years ago, on the basis of Darwin’s evolutionary theory about natural selection of traits most likely to boost procreation.
Another blow to the simplistic ‘gay gene’ theory are studies of identical twins, which show that where one twin is gay, there is only a 50% chance that the other twin will be as well. Because the genes of identical twins are, well, identical, if a gay gene exists both twins should have it. On that basis, scientists have concluded that homosexuality must not be genetic, given the lower strike rate. Instead, they’re increasingly leaning towards environmental factors during pregnancy.
Subsequent studies, for example, have shown that identical twins were sometimes exposed to differing hormone levels in the womb – one twin might receive higher doses of hormones from the mother, either through diet or the pregnancy itself.
That, say researchers, could explain why one identical twin is gay and the other is not.
Which brings us back to estrogen additives like soy, or estradiol and the lesbian seagulls. Could it be that the increased prevalence of gay behaviour in humans has less to do with “who we are” than what we eat or inhale?
The ethical implications are enormous, particularly if ongoing studies confirm that pollutants and estrogen-laden foods are possible causative factors in both homosexuality and reproductive health problems.
The question is, what are the hormones doing to humans?