Controversial Animal Drug at Heart of International Trade Dispute

A drug fed to an estimated 80 percent of pigs in the U.S. has sickened or killed more than any other livestock drug on the market. A U.S. Supreme Court vote struck down a law to keep such “downer” animals out of the food supply.

| February 2, 2012

  • cafo pigs
    The animal feed additive, ractopamine hydrochloride, is fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States.

  • cafo pigs

New York, NY—The animal feed additive, ractopamine hydrochloride, widely used in the United States to promote rapid growth in livestock, has become the focus of a long-running international trade dispute that centers on concerns about its effect on human health, reports Helena Bottemiller in “ Dispute over drug in feed limiting US meat exports,” published today on The story was produced by the Food & Environment Reporting Network and can be found at  and Food and Environment Reporting Network.

“Although few Americans outside of the livestock industry have ever heard of ractopamine, the drug is controversial,” Bottemiller writes. “Fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States, it has sickened or killed more of them than any other livestock drug on the market, Food and Drug Administration records show. Cattle and turkeys have also suffered high numbers of illnesses from the drug.”

Bottemiller reports that after the drug was introduced, USDA meat inspectors reported an increase in the number of “downer pigs”—lame animals unable to walk. The Supreme Court on Monday unanimously struck down a California law that had sought to keep downer livestock out of the food supply. It overturned the lower court’s ruling on the grounds of federal preemption.

The report explains that ractopamine, which has not been proposed for human use, mimics stress hormones, making the heartbeat faster and relaxing blood vessels. In animals, it revs up production of lean meat, reducing fat. Pigs raised on it produce an average of 10 percent more meat, raising profits by $2 per head. The drug is fed to animals right up until slaughter and minute traces of it have been found in meat.

The European Union, China, Taiwan and many others have banned its use, limiting U.S. meat exports in key markets. Bottemiller explains that U.S. trade officials are pressing more countries to accept meat from animals raised on ractopamine—a move opposed by China and the EU, reporting: “Resolving the impasse is now a top agricultural trade priority for the Obama administration, which is trying to boost exports and help revive the economy.”

The trade dispute centers on safety studies conducted by drug maker Elanco. It conducted only one human study with six healthy young men, one of whom was removed because his heart began racing and pounding abnormally, Bottemiller writes. When applying for FDA approval, Elanco reported that “no adverse effects were observed for any treatments,” but, within a few years of ractopamine’s approval, the company received hundreds of reports of sickened pigs, according to records obtained by Bottemiller from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

2/9/2012 9:25:46 PM

You're absolutely right: we do want safe food and it IS all about making a profit. But it sounds like your attitude is that our food isn't safe and farmers should be producing our food even if they have to take a loss to do it...Ractopamine adds about 20 lb to each hog. Farmers sell hogs at less than a dollar a pound and that extra 20 lb represents not only an extra $17 a head, it also may mean the difference betrween making a profit and taking a loss (Yes, the margins are that small in farming)....OK, say we're all prepared to pay the extra money for the meat without chemical assist--then we're talking about more hogs required to feed us. More hogs means ultimately more feed and more habitat sacrificed to raising them. That's bad for the environmnet...Each chemical used in raising livestock has a wash-out period--time between the last dose and time of slaughter. Virtually none of the chemicals used in production actually makes it into the food supply. It's myth spread by the pseudo-scientific community, usually having some agenda like "animal rights." that says otherwise...Our commercially produced food is safe.

2/9/2012 9:25:00 AM

Safe or not, when I buy pork for my family I want it to contain pork and nothing else. If you buy a processed product such as a pie or meat paste or whatever, you accept that it will have additives, but when you buy a raw product, you expect it to be exactly that - so if I buy pork I want it to be pork, not pork plus unecessary chemicals. People (apart from people who only buy organic produce of course) understand that some animals medicines are necessary, (such as wormers for example ) and we have to accept that they may persist in the meat and that's fair enough because we know about it - but in the West we are *not* starving look in our shops, see any shortage of meat? So the food production argument does not apply - it's really about profit. As for it's source, ractopamine may indeed come from Echinacea, but all chemicals derive from natural beginnings in some way -aresnic comes from a natural source too, the deadly poison ricin comes from the castor oil plant, and we would not say that being from a natural and otherwise useful source therefore makes it OK to eat would we? This seems to be about profit and nothing more really. Read more:

2/4/2012 11:24:26 AM

How ironic. Ractopamine comes from Echinacea, that cone flower so many TreeHuggers like to eat and use for medicinal purposes, givng them much higher blood levels than eating the hogs.. The CA law struck down was intended to keep downer cattle, possibly suffering with Mad Cow Dis,. out of the food supply. Hogs don't suffer from that. Hogs may become discoordinated from ractopamine, (it's related to "speed") but it's rapidly excreted and then they're OK, so no need to exclude them after a short wash-out period. ..Use of growth promoting chemicals in producing our food means less land & fewer resources are needed to accomplish the task-- meaning more natural habitat can be spared.( We have to have some pity on all the urbanites who can't grow their own food)... If the Obama admin is so concerned about our food exports, why did it take them 3 yrs to sign a treaty already negotiated with Korea when they took office in '09? It was worth $billions to Am farmers. (Answer: union entanglements)

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