Barbara Sumner Burstyn: Sexy Beef
By Barbara Sumner Burstyn
First Published by Investigate Magazine
NZ Grass Fed Beef Cattle - HGP Free?
Butchers dancing like Hari Krishna’s, senior citizens thrashing out hard rock, the Evers-Swindell twins smiling furiously, meat, especially red meat is hot right now. “New Zealanders are fond of their meat,” says Richard Umbers, managing director of supermarket chain Progressive Enterprises. And quality, he comments, is everything.
Meat and Wool New Zealand agrees. Their website extols the benefits of year round outdoor grazing. ‘Livestock grow to good weights with little need for veterinary drugs, chemical inputs or feed supplements.’
But like ‘fog facts,’ – important things known but not known that nobody seems able to focus on anymore – described in Larry Beinhart’s book, “Fog Facts’ Politics: What We Don't Know and Why We Don't Know It there’s more going on in the paddocks than just grass munching.
Hormone Growth Promotants for example. Known in the industry as HGPs, the official line is that the sex hormones implanted into the ears of cattle are natural or nature identical substances that simply replicate nature, mimicking the hormones lost through castration and equating to other natural dietary sources of hormones such as eggs or soybeans.
But how do New Zealanders feel about growth promoting hormones implanted in their meat patties? Rod Slater, Chief Executive of the New Zealand Beef and Lamb Marketing Bureau says that at the time of establishing the Quality Mark in 1997 consumers surveyed showed a clear preference for meat free of hormone additives. He says they no longer survey this but he is convinced our attitudes have not changed.
Until a few weeks ago The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) agreed. In the section relating to HGP’s in meat the NZFSA declared it was ‘their policy that consumers should be provided with adequate information so they can make informed choices about food matters such as this, and good food labelling is important in this process.’
But question your butcher about HGP’s and he’ll look at you blankly. Read the labels on the packaged meat at some supermarkets and you’ll be hard pressed to find any acknowledgement of hormone use, despite the fact that they’re implanted into around 80,000 head of cattle each year. While that figure is low, about 2 percent of our total market, if you’re a meat eater, that’s a potential additive you didn’t bargain for.
The NZFSA endorsement of food labelling to ensure informed choice has now disappeared from their website.  When questioned about the presence of artificial hormones in New Zealand’s meat chain and the lack of labelling Sandra Daly, Director of Communications reports they are a science-based organisation and based on the scientific evidence, there is no consumer protection basis for banning HGP use for beef production for New Zealand. 
Australia endorses that position. In a major report the Australian Department of Health and Aging found that the human safety and toxicology of HGP’s have been extensively assessed by regulatory authorities in Australia, the USA, Canada and New Zealand, in addition to expert scientific committees from the World Health Organisation. The NZFSA says the report forms a part of the information New Zealand considers in developing their views on HGPs. They comment that all international bodies and national regulatory agencies accept the safety data that residues of registered hormones do not pose a threat to consumers.
All that is, except the European Union (EU). The use of HGPs was banned by The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, in 1988. The WTO responded that the ban was unscientific. In 2003 the EU completed a full scientific risk assessment, re-evaluating the potential risks to human health from hormone residues. This resulted in the permanent prohibition of oestradiol 17ß. Their precautionary approach extends to five hormones (testosterone, progesterone, trembolone acetate, zeranol and melengestrol acetate) that have now been provisionally prohibited.  In addition to oestradiol 17ß there are seven registered HGP’s in New Zealand including those containing progesterone and trembolone acetate. 
In banning HGP’s the EU say they have considered all social, economic and political factors. They concluded that Estradiol 17ß was a ‘complete’ carcinogen and that others such as trembolone acetate the synthetic equivalent of testosterone, should be viewed as having potentially endocrine-disrupting, developmental, immunological, neurobiological, immunotoxic, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects. The EU claims there is a lack of data to support an alternative view. They also contend that despite the WTO rulings there is limited information available on the levels of the various metabolites, or breakdown products, despite this information being relevant.
The EU also suggests that young children may be more sensitive to low levels of the hormones than previously thought. The authors conclude that in light of recent progress in our understanding of estrogen levels in children, possible adverse effects on human health by consumption of meat from estrogen-treated animals cannot be excluded.
The WTO has consistently ruled against the EU. Despite WTO-approved retaliatory economic trade sanctions imposed by the United States, the EU continues to defy orders to lift the ban. EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy stated in November last year that the EU ban on certain HGPs was based on a thorough and independent scientific risk assessment. .
The precautionary principal exercised by the EU appears to be echoed by a leading comparative cancer research programme at Cornell University. They say that while there’s no evidence to suggest that eating meat from hormone-treated animals affects breast cancer risks, a conclusion on lack of human health effect can only be made after large-scale studies to compare the health of people who eat HGP meat to people who don’t. These have never been done. Cornell also acknowledges that large epidemiological studies have never been done to assess whether or not early puberty in developing girls is associated with having eaten growth hormone-treated foods. 
The Australian report concludes that even with the EU’s latest data supporting the ban they can find no grounds for amending Australia’s regulatory position on HGPs.  New Zealand takes the same position.
Derek Moore, New Zealand manager for Elanco the makers of Compudose, one of the most widely used HGPs in New Zealand, is verbose in his dismissal of any concerns surrounding the products. “There is no question that the EU position is a form of trade embargo and market protectionism. It’s a non-tariff trade barrier.” He went on to describe the precautionary principal (the EU’s better-safe-than-sorry approach to implementing health regulations) as entirely arbitrary. “I give it no weight,” he said and added that the science in favour of HGPs was so unequivocal that there was really only one side to this issue, the side of the facts.
Compudose is a controlled release estradiol. The package insert says Estradiol 17ß is a naturally occurring substance. In the material safety data sheet published by Elanco the emergency overview for the product states that estradiol may enter the body through the skin, causes cancer and is highly potent. Fetal changes, reproductive tissue damage, mental disorders are also mentioned, as are increased breast size and other feminizing effects in males occupationally exposed to estrogens. The published warning for the product says that even intermittent absorption of small amounts of estrogen through the skin may result in accumulation of relatively high systemic levels with concomitant negative health effects on children whose parents work with estrogen products.  Elanco, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, is at pains to point out that its product does not pose any health risk, either to those handling the product or to consumers who ultimately eat the implanted meat. “The data is pointing out the hazards of exposure,” says Moore, “that is entirely different from the risk.”
Compudose is implanted only in the skin immediately beneath the ear of a cattle beast. Disposal of ears of implanted cattle is an issue. NZFSA says they are discarded as waste, rendered or used in gelatin production. Gelatin is made from skin (pigskin and hide split) and bone taken from slaughtered animals that have been approved for human consumption. The resulting gelatin is then used in a plethora of locally produced products. A report by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) said that failure to discard implanted ears could lead to mg amounts of hormone residues to enter the food chain and cause acute toxicity in consumers. The NZFSA responds that Australia allows HGP implantation in other parts of the body. But as Elanco New Zealand points out, the product and all product use guidelines are the same as in New Zealand. Martin Holmes, a spokesperson for the APVMA says that, as in New Zealand, Compudose is implanted only in the ear.
A further issue is the use of antibiotics. Elanco acknowledges that the implant may be dusted with the antibiotic tetracycline. Derek Moore is unsure if the New Zealand version contains any antibiotic. He suggests that perhaps the implant is coated in talcum powder.
In the United States the needle used to insert the implant is also often coated with an antibiotic. Vet Services in the Hawkes Bay are adamant they do not use antibiotics to cleanse needles. But either way the trace use of an antibiotic for non-therapeutic purposes is concerning. In the United States a bill currently before the US House of Representatives (The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2005) stated that non-therapeutic overuse of antibiotics in animals was creating severe antibiotic resistance in people. The task force cautioned that if current trends continue, treatments for common infections could become nonexistent.  Again the EU is at the forefront of precautionary measures, banning the use of all non-therapeutic veterinary antibiotics identified as similar or identical to those used in humans. Elanco says it has yet to be demonstrated that non-therapeutic use of antibiotics has a detrimental effect on humans.
So why use HGPs at all? The industry calls them ‘quality enhancers.’ In a local trial cattle treated with Compudose had an average weight increase of 23.5% . Cattle treated with HGPs grow faster enabling them to be sent to the works in shorter time, lowering the farmer cost of beef raising. It’s estimated that for every dollar spent on an HGP there is a five-dollar return.
Because of the EU ban and restrictions in nine other countries considered minor markets HGPs are strictly controlled in New Zealand. They include identification prior to or immediately after implantation, double-tagging, strict dose notation, a level of paper work that one vet described as onerous, implantation by trained and certified implanters and a requirement that all lost tags be replaced immediately. Once HGP cattle reach the works they must be separated from other animals and either killed in a separate area or only after all the equipment is completely cleansed. Abattoir workers spoken to described the processes as time-consuming. The NZFSA reports that failure to abide by any conditions outlined by MAF could result in prosecution and fines of up to $100,000.
But an inspection by a team from the EU in May found the systems were not quite as robust as the authority suggests.  The team reported a number of issues, such as the accuracy in accounting for all doses of HGPs passing through the distribution chain. They were concerned that administration of HGPs and completion of the records were being carried out by the farmers themselves and they called for tighter control on use of animal remedies that contain active ingredients that are banned in the EU. The New Zealand Agricultural Compounds and Veterinary Medicines group who manage HGPs say they have now taken corrective actions.
Perhaps the most salient point for New Zealand meat consumers is the fact that all identification procedures and separation effort is designed solely to protect our standing with the EU. “There is no emphasis on ensuring the local market can access non-HGP meat,” admits the NZFSA.  They advise that there are three main mechanisms for post slaughter separation and identification. Organics such as those run by Biogro, the New Zealand Beef and Lamb Marketing Bureau’s domestic Quality Mark and Qualmark. (Qualmark reports that they do not certify meat)
New Zealand Beef and Lamb Marketing Bureau advises consumers to look out for their red tick of hormone-free approval. Seager Mason, technical director for BioGro says organic food by definition is free of additives. “The whole point of organics is the system for monitoring the producers. Food producers should always declare the means of manufacture.” He comments that any decision on the safety or otherwise of food ingredients should be made by the consumer not the ‘vested-interest’ producer. He adds that regulators have made a deliberate decision to exclude the public from decision-making. “In essence they’re saying they know best, that we should just trust them. It’s patronizing at best.” He comments that when a government department calls itself a ‘scientific organisation,’ they’re about to give you the benefit of political or personal opinion. “We’re educated to a high level in New Zealand. Surely we are able to assimilate facts and opinions and make our own decisions.”
Such is the adherence to the ‘science’ of HGPs and the belief that the EU ban is nothing more than market protectionism, the only risk acknowledged by the NZFSA is a trade risk. Implanted animals in New Zealand are not tested for residues of any of the registered HGPs. Instead up to 450 non-implanted cattle are tested to ensure compliance with the identification regulations to protect the export market.
NZ Food Safety Authority director of animal products Tony Zohrab was reported recently as saying any decision on the use of HGPs is very much a commercial one between farmers and processors. The organisation's official position is that while consumer perception obviously plays a role in decision-making, wherever possible, when that perception is at odds with scientific evidence, they prefer consumer education to scientifically unjustified regulation.
Elanco’s Derek Moore says their own consumer research shows people want safe and affordable food. “The use of HGPs and antibiotics in animal production is of very low concern.” And he comments that banning things is unacceptable in our modern marketplace.
He’s right of course. HGPs should not be banned. The tracking and status of HGP cattle in New Zealand is comprehensive and effective. Labeling for the local market is no more commercially onerous than separation for the European market. Consumer choice is promoted as the ultimate freedom. It is the market that must test the validity of claims in support of HGPs. It is the market that must sort out whether consumers really want to eat meat grown with growth promoting hormones.
POSTSCRIPT: When asked how New Zealanders, in the absence of appropriate labeling, even know they are eating HGP meat and if they find this acceptable, the NZFSA said they regularly survey consumer views. If you have an opinion on the use of HGPs in New Zealand and the lack of labeling of HGP products then contact the NZFSA directly: Sandra Daly: Sandra.Daly@nzfsa.govt.nz
1. NZFSA chemicals in food: Date accessed, 12/6/2005"
2. Answer to question 30 from NZFSA, document on file
4. compudose – Elanco.pdf
8. Q & A document from NZFSA on file
10. Andersson, A-M and N.E. Skakkebfk (1999): Exposure to Exogenous Estrogens in Food: Possible Impact on Human Development and Health.European Journal of Endocrinology 140 477-485. Balter, Michael (1999): Scientific Cross-Claims Fly In Continuing Beef War. Science Vol 284 1453-1454
13. http://www.nzfsa.govt.nz/acvm/registers-lists/acvm-register/index.htm?setup_file=acvm-reg.setup.cgi&session_file=&_dmode=b&LICID=&TRADE_NAME= &PRODUCT_TYPE=Hormonal+Growth+Promotant&NAME=&COMMON_NAME= &DATE_SINCE=&DATE_BEFORE=&sort_by=0&sort_order= forward&rows_to_return=10&submit_search=Search