let's talk farm animals

I think we need to talk…

Jean L Clavelle
Farm Animal Council of Saskatchewan

Growth hormones.  Dirty nasty words aren’t they?   I’m sorry to bring this up but I think it’s something we need to talk about.

Many of us in Canada, well North America, are so extremely fortunate we live in a place where getting enough to eat is not generally a problem and where we have the choice to make decisions on what we consume.  We have the opportunity to choose where our food comes from and how it’s produced regardless of cost.  Fortunate indeed.

And with this providence, it seems to have become almost admirable to deride those who do not choose foods of a certain variety ie “natural” “ethically raised” “antibiotic free” and  “hormone free”.   Now I would like to assure those of you who can’t or don’t make these food choices despite pressure from your peers or social media, that the food grown in Canada is safe and healthy including beef produced with the use of hormones.  Here’s my attempt at explaining why.

Beef cattle feedlot in western Canada

Beef cattle feedlot in western Canada

First what are growth hormones and how do they work?  Growth hormones are tiny pellets inserted into the back of the ear of a beef animal which slowly releases synthetic hormones over a period of several months.  These hormones mimic the natural reproductive hormones manufactured by the animal.  To make a long physiology discussion short, they encourage protein deposition and discourage fat deposition. This improves both weight gain and feed conversion (the amount of feed required to deposit muscle). Fat deposition requires more than twice as much feed as protein deposition does.  Muscle tissue contains about 70% water while fat contains less than 30% water.  This means that for every ten pounds of muscle gained, about three pounds comes from dry feed and seven pounds comes from water. This ratio is the reversed for fat growth - roughly seven pounds from dry feed and three pounds from water.   So you can see, that with slight increases in protein deposition and slight decreases in fat deposition that there are pretty big differences in the amount of feed required.

Ok, so it works by making minor changes to how cattle grow, but is it safe??  Growth hormone safety has been reviewed by many major health organizations around the globe -  Health Canada, Australian Department of Health and Aging, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations among others.  They have concluded that hormones can be used safely in beef production because the levels found in beef food products are too low to be of risk to human health.

But how low is low you ask?  Good question.  To begin with there is no such thing as hormone free beef.  All cattle produce hormones, so regardless of how it’s grown there will also be a certain level of hormones in beef.  When organic beef is compared to beef produced with growth hormones, you might be surprised to know there are negligible differences.  According to the Beef Information Center in a 100g piece of organic beef there is 1.5 nanograms of estrogen and in a 100g piece of beef given hormones there is 2.2 nanograms of estrogen.  Now, compare this to the 20,000 to 50,000 nanograms found in a single oral contraceptive pill or the 625,000 nanograms in a single hormone replacement pill.  For some more perspective it’s estimated that a person would need to consume 3 million hamburgers every day from cattle administered growth hormones before he or she would be exposed to as much estrogen as an average woman produces daily.

But why are they used at all - what’s the benefit?  Well a few reasons.  One of the big reasons is that profits are extremely narrow in raising livestock so producers must find ways of becoming more efficient.  Growth hormones improve efficiency and are therefore a useful tool.  Producers also have a responsibility to the environment and society to figure out ways to produce more from less.  A 2012 article published in the Journal of Animal Science showed that if we removed the use of growth enhancing technologies which include growth hormones we would need 10% more cattle, 10% more land, and 10% more feed to produce the same amount of beef. Doing this would also require 7% more fuel and fertilizer. The reduced feed efficiency and longer days to finish would also mean that the cattle would produce 10% more manure and greenhouse gas in the process.  I would call this tool environmentally friendly, not to mention sustainable and ethical wouldn’t you?

We live in a country where food choices abound and a more than adequate disposable income with which to make them.  It is my hope that after reading these facts you feel confident that there are multiple ways to make healthy food choices, regardless of it’s label.

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Posted by FACS on September 30th, 2014 :: Filed under Agriculture Education,Beef cattle,Canada,Education and public awareness,Food safety,growth hormone
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