Many people may not realize it, but much of the meat we eat contains synthetic growth hormones and other chemicals that may be harmful to us. Why would cattle owners want to use growth hormones? It is all about money. Ranchers today want to produce more cattle in a shorter period. A rancher may only have about 14 months to get the calf from a small size, say 80 pounds, to a selling size (around 1,200 pounds). Growth hormones help the cattle put on weight to get them ready for slaughter in record time as well as reducing the amount of fat in the meat. Nitrates are a chemical compound that can also be found in meat today, being used to cure meat and give them a healthy color. Most notably, nitrates are found in hotdogs, giving them their red color.
The use of hormones in meat is nothing new. As far back as the 1930s, research shows that estrogen affected the growth rates in both cattle and poultry. By the 1950s, a synthetic (man made) estrogen, DES, was being used to increase cattle size. However, DES was found to cause cancer and is no longer used to “fatten” up cattle and chickens.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) current approves of five different types of hormones used in food production. Of these, testosterone and progesterone are produced naturally by the animals and zeranol and trenbolone acetate are synthetically made. These hormones are approved for use only in cattle and sheep. Poultry, such as chickens and turkeys, and pigs do not gain much weight when given these hormones, so they are not given them. Most of these hormones are given to the animal by inserting a pellet under the skin of the ear. The pellet releases the hormone and the ears of the animals are thrown away during slaughtered.
The concern of scientist and consumers both is that traces of the hormones and chemicals will remain in the meat and pose a potential hazard to humans who consume it. Have you noticed that girls today seem to be reaching puberty at a younger age? It is suspected that this may be due to the steroids found in today’s meat. Unfortunately, studies done on the potentially harmful ingredients in meat have proved inconclusive and further studies are needed. One problem when conducting a study is that the animals produce some of the hormones naturally, therefore making it hard to determine how much is natural versus the pellet hormones. Also, the level of hormones produced naturally varies from animal to animal, another hurdle for researchers to overcome. The concern with nitrates, used to cure meats and give them a pink or red color, is that they can be converted into nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are believed to both cause and promote cancer. However, the FDA has no studies that decisively finds nitrates used in meats harmful, therefore continue to allow them to be used in processed foods.
What should you as a consumer do? One thing you can do is purchase organic meat. Organic meat comes from livestock raised without hormones or steroids. Also, the cattle are fed grains with no pesticides involved. In 2002, the United States Department of Agriculture developed a system whereas all organic foods (including meat) would be labeled as such. So when shopping, you should see a label on organic meat that signifies that it contains at least 95% organic ingredients. Some grocery stores carry organic meat, but if not, you may have to visit a butcher shop or health food store to find it. You can even buy organic meat through the Internet and have it delivered to your home. However, if you decided to purchase meat online, you may want to first order a small amount. That way, you can determine if it meets all your specifications for delivery time, freshness, etc. before buying a larger quantity.
As ranchers strive to find ways to get more cattle to slaughter faster, consumers will continue to be concerned in the methods they are using to do it. Until more research is done, the best thing you can do it try to be aware of all the dangers out there by staying abreast of the current research being done on cattle hormones and chemicals used in processing meats, and purchase organic meat for your family.