WASHINGTON (MCT) — R.C. Hunt, who has raised pigs for 50 years in North Carolina, offers no apologies for a common practice in the U.S. pork industry: mixing feed with a controversial drug that makes the animals grow leaner in the final weeks of their lives.
With the Food and Drug Administration allowing farmers to give the drug, ractopamine, to their pigs since 1999, pork producers say their meat is perfectly safe.
“I believe in the science,” said Hunt, of Wilson, N.C., who produces 125,000 pigs a year and is a former president of the National Pork Producers Council.
But food safety advocates say there’s one big problem: The drug has been banned or restricted in roughly 160 of the world’s 196 countries, including those in the European Union.
The growing anxiety over the safety of U.S. pork and other food products could thwart an expanded trade deal between the two economic superpowers, a top priority for President Barack Obama.
As European and U.S. negotiators met privately in a sixth round of talks in Brussels that ended Friday, critics worried that a pact might result in new trade rules that harm the European food supply.
“We want to have quality food. We don’t want to have food that is produced in ways that are not good for our health,” said Olga Kikou of Brussels, European affairs manager for Compassion in World Farming, an international advocacy organization headquartered in London that focuses on farm animal welfare issues.
Many Europeans have long opposed genetically modified products, but much of the recent uproar has focused on U.S meat. That includes chicken, which in the U.S. is disinfected with chlorine in a commonly used cleaning practice.
In May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave assurances that she would block the imports of any chlorine-washed chicken. The EU has banned U.S. chickens since 1996, but American chicken producers want the ban lifted as part of a new trade pact.
In June, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, visiting Paris, urged Europeans to accept “the common language of science” in trade.
Critics say U.S. officials should put more emphasis on health.
“This is such a great example of how the U.S. is really putting the financial interest of companies ahead of public health,” said Kari Hamerschlag, senior program manager of the food and technology program at the environmental group Friends of the Earth in Berkeley, Calif. “We want to export our really crappy meat-production system to the rest of the world — and they don’t want it.”
Ractopamine, which is fed to 60 percent to 80 percent of all pigs in the U.S., has been linked to more than 160,000 reports of sickened or dead pigs, according to the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group that focuses on environmental and health issues.
The drug, part of a class called beta-agonists, increases the pig’s heart rate and relaxes its blood vessels, resulting in leaner muscles for the animal and lower feed and production costs for the producer. It’s manufactured by Elanco, a branch of Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant.
In a May report, the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy said that a series of studies had shown that pigs fed ractopamine showed increased aggression, more abnormal behavior and difficulty walking.
Hamerschlag said pork producers were on “the absolute wrong side of this issue” and predicted that more Americans will begin pushing for a ban on ractopamine.
“Pork producers would be smart to get out ahead of that,” she said.
Hunt said the fears were unfounded, likening the drug to a vitamin that helps pigs digest their feed. And he said he’d never seen any ill effects.
“We’ve always looked at the ractopamine as kind of a natural product. We’ve been using it for many, many years,” Hunt said.
McClatchy Washington Bureau
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