Never heard of ractopamine? If you live in the United States and eat pork you’ve been exposed to this drug being fed at commercial pig farms around the country. What’s more you’ve been exposed to a substance 160 other countries in the world have banned due to safety concerns.
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According to a report from Live Science, between 60 to 80 percent of the nation’s pork supply has been fed ractopamine, a beta-agonist drug, part of a class of medications developed to treat asthma and only adapted for animal use when they were shown to boost growth rates. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of ractopamine in pigs after only one laboratory trial–and one that was based on human test subjects, and that approval maintains intact despite the fact ractopamine is not allowed in the meat supply in a number of countries, including the European Union, Russia and China.
In fact, in 2009, the The European Food Safety Authority investigated ractopamine, and concluded there was not enough data to show it was safe for human consumption at any level. According to the Russian news source Pravda, the drug may cause food poisoning, and Center for Food Safety (CFS) notes “[d]ata from the European Food Safety Authority indicates that ractopamine causes elevated heart rates and heart-pounding sensations in humans.”
The actual product label for humans reads:
“WARNING: The active ingredient in Topmax, ractopamine hydrochloride, is a beta-adrenergic agonist. Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Not for use in humans. Keep out of the reach of children. The Topmax 9 formulation (Type A Medicated Article) poses a low dust potential under usual conditions of handling and mixing.
When mixing and handling Topmax, use protective clothing, impervious gloves, protective eye wear, and a NIOSH-approved dust mask. Operators should wash thoroughly with soap and water after handling. If accidental eye contact occurs, immediately rinse eyes thoroughly with water. If irritation persists, seek medical attention. The material safety data sheet contains more detailed occupational safety information. To report adverse effects, access medical information, or obtain additional product information, call 1-800-428-4441.”
It’s not just humans who suffer
But where the real adverse affects related to ractopamine are seen is among animals–particularly the pigs that are routinely fed the drug. In 2013, the Center for Food Safety (CFS) and Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) sued the FDA for withholding records pertaining to ractopamine’s safety.
According to the lawsuit, in response to the groups’ requests for information, only some 400 pages of 100,000 were made available for review on ractopamine’s safety margins. Eventually, the company responsible for ractopamine’s production was required to place an additional warning on it’s label that read: “Ractopamine may increase the number of injured and/or fatigued pigs during marketing. Not for use in breeding swine.”
The FDA has linked ractopamine to nearly a quarter-million reported adverse events in pigs. Most of those cases reported sickened pigs, many of which died or were killed, giving ractopamine the highest number of adverse events of any other animal drug on the market. The majority of pigs with reactions became lame or started shaking but were killed anyway for use in the meat market.
Thankfully, awareness about this drug’s use is spreading, and pork companies across the country are starting to phase out ractopamine from feed supplies. Many in the industry are still opposed to the notion, however, as ractopamine fuels pig growth and helps generate a profit for farms.