John Wayne, Chemical Cowboys Want You to Keep Eating Hormones

Last week, we wrote about the poultry industry supersizing chickens with arsenic-based drugs. Today, there’s news about cows on performance enhancing drugs of their own.

First, the back story:  In 1971, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the first synthetic hormone, diethylstilbestrol (DES), for use by pregnant women. This move came too late for many women who took DES during their pregnancies.  Their daughters were at least 40 times more likely to develop a particular cancer that is otherwise rarely seen in women.

But what’s this got to do with the handsome and delicious creature we call the cow? Well, in the 1950’s John Wayne and other chemical cowboys discovered that adding DES and other hormones makes cows grow faster.  A corollary discovery – it also makes the livestock industry richer, since it allows cattle ranchers to cut on feed costs and bring animals to slaughter sooner.

But wait? That hormone went in the cow food, right? And from the cow food, it went into the cow, and once in the cow, it had a biologically significant impact, right? Not to get all old-woman-who-swallowed-a-fly on you, but did John Wayne stop to wonder if the hormone might have a similar impact on the people who ate the cow?

If he did, you wouldn’t know it from the way the industry responded.  After the human ban on DES in 1971, the livestock industry continued dosing their cows with the hormone for eight more years.  As John Wayne used to say, “Profits, pilgrim.  Profits.”

While DES is no longer used, at least six other steroid hormones are used in American and Canadian beef production (such hormones are banned in European beef). In dairy production, the genetically engineered bovine growth hormone (rBGH) is still used in the U.S. (though it’s banned in Canada, Europe and much of the rest of the world). Scientists, food safety advocates and public health experts have long warned that the use of these hormones leads to hormone residues in food and in livestock wastes, threatening public and environmental health. Still, the factory animal production industry in our country refuses to sacrifice profits for the sake of public health, meaning: they won’t stop dosing your tasty, tasty cows with synthetic hormones.

Our nation’s leading public health organization is now stepping into this fray.  The American Public Health Association (APHA) has issued a strongly worded policy statement opposing the use of hormones in beef and dairy production. It calls on FDA to ban these unnecessary drugs and recommends that hospitals, schools, and other institutions – especially those serving children – look for sources of meat and dairy produced without hormones. It also supports mandatory labeling so consumers can know when hormones have been used in food production.

In its statement, the APHA notes that early puberty and many chronic, hormone-related diseases are increasingly common, including breast and prostate cancer, infertility, thyroid disease, obesity and diabetes, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids. Hormones in food, they say, are a plausible contributing factor to these trends. Citing the special risks to children, the Association notes that since children cannot simply avoid these hormone-laced foods, the appropriate action is to ban the drugs.

It’s also worth noting that, as APHA warns, rBGH use increases animal illnesses, so dairy farmers are forced to use more antibiotics when their cows are on the drug. The overuse of antibiotics in livestock can lead to an increase in human diseases that resist treatment by common drugs. APHA also notes that rBGH use may increase levels of a hormone associated with colon, breast, and prostate cancers.

So what can you do to keep synthetic hormones out of your diet?  Consumers looking for beef raised without hormones can check Local Harvest for suppliers in their area. Food and Water Watch has a guide to milk produced without rBGH. The long-time controversy over the safety of rBGH has led many national dairy brands, including Kroger, Ben & Jerry’s, California Dairies Coop and others to prohibit use of the hormone by their dairy farm suppliers. Food and Water Watch is also spearheading an effort to ensure that school milk is rBGH-free.