It seems like almost every month, a new food-or-drink related safety scandal goes down in China. Last week, it was Viagra-laced booze; in June, it was 100,000 tons of rotting, smuggled meat that got seized by feds.
But maybe it’s the U.S. that is doing the most scandalous things to its food. Quartz reports that the National Pork Board in China is putting the pressure on U.S. pork producers to stop pumping their pigs full of Ractopamine, a growth drug which is banned in many countries around the world (but approved for use in the U.S.).
The U.S. pork industry feeds Ractopamine to an estimated 60 percent to 80 percent of American pigs. “If you buy pork at your local supermarket, chances are that it came from a ractopamine-treated pig,” writes Wayne Pacelle, the president of The Humane Society of the United States.
Why China Doesn’t Approve of Ractopamine
Ractopamine changes pigs’ metabolism so that they need less feed to produce more muscle, leading to leaner meat and heavier pigs, because muscle weighs more than fat.
But the apparent benefits of the drug come at a price. Helena Bottemiller of the Food and Environment Reporting Network said in 2012 that “the drug has triggered more adverse reports in pigs than any other animal drug on the market.”
Because Ractopamine effects on humans aren’t well-documented, and because what reports exist are seen as flawed, countries including China see ractopamine as dangerous. Taiwanese pig farmers even protested the idea of lifting a ractopamine ban in 2007, chanting slogans like, “Get out, USA pork” and “We refuse to eat pork that contains poisonous ractopamine.”
China is the #1 consumer of pork in the world, so what the country wants out of its pork products matters. U.S pork giant Smithfield announced that half its pigs would be produced without ractopamine shortly before Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd. purchased it in 2013. Is this a coincidence? Probably not.
The Problems With Feeding Ractopamine to Pigs
The information above comes from an FDA report listing the details of veterinarian-reported problems with animals on certain drugs. Ractopamine is used in several animals including pigs, cattle, and turkeys to help them more efficiently turn feed into lean, marketable muscle—not fat.
Use of this drug is extremely controversial. The above FDA report shows the negative effects of drugs on each species. Above is just the first half-page of three-and-a-half pages of information on Ractopamine’s effects on pigs alone.
Ractopamine has been used in pigs in the U.S. since 1999. Last year, several groups including the Humane Society of the United States, United Farm Workers of America, and the Center for Food Safety filed two separate lawsuits against the FDA alleging that it didn’t adequately ensure environmental and health safety when it approved this drug.
One of the lawsuits states,”While its manufacturer admits that Ractopamine is toxic to plants and aquatic invertebrates, the drug is used in at least 23 states that are known to provide habitat for threatened and endangered plants and aquatic invertebrates. Ractopamine exposure has also been linked to adverse health events in humans and animals.”