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Growth promoting hormones in beef production and marketing

January 25, 2019

An update on beef exports and the hormone dispute

In 2018, the U.S. exported more than 1.6 billion pounds of beef to Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. Overall U.S. beef export volume was 12.3 percent greater in 2018 in comparison to 2017. Total beef exports have added $317.53 per head to fed slaughter cattle value.

This is positive news for beef producers. Unfortunately, there are barriers that prevent U.S. beef products from reaching their full export potential. China’s growing middle class makes it a prime location for U.S. beef exports. However, U.S. beef exports to China have been much less in volume than predicted. This is due to China’s restrictions on beef from cattle implanted with growth promoting hormones.

Most cattle producers in the U.S. implant their cattle to improve production efficiency. China would need to revise its trade barriers to be more open to beef that has been implanted with growth promoting hormones for the U.S. to increase beef exports to that country.

Europe has had a non-hormone treated cattle (NHTC) program since 1999. Although the U.S. has been able to supply specifically to this program for a premium, the duty-free volume is limited to 20,000 metric tons and there is a loss of production efficiency.

The U.S. beef industry needs to establish greater global consumer trust to ease concerns about using hormones in cattle production. The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of growth promoting hormones such as estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, trenbolone acetate and zeranol. More than 20 countries use these hormones regularly and have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water use and reactive nitrogen loss of beef production in comparison to beef raised without growth promoting hormones.

As consumers demand greater sustainability, growth-promoting hormones can enhance production efficiency and can contribute significantly to the goal of producing more food with fewer resources.

The important role of hormones

Estradiol, progesterone and testosterone are hormones present in plant and animal products. These naturally occurring hormones are endogenous (coming from inside the system). In animals, they travel through the bloodstream to synchronize body functions and influence reproduction, growth and development.

Hormones such as androgens and estrogens are exogenous (coming from outside the system). They are given to growing cattle to promote growth and they cooperate with the endogenous hormones. Growth promoting hormones improve feed efficiency, protein deposition and growth rate of cattle.

diagram of a cow's ear and proper placement of a hormone implant
Where to place an implant in a cow's ear

Small pellets are implanted under the skin in the animal’s ear between the skin and the cartilage on the backside of the ear. The implants release the hormone compound over time into the bloodstream. Once the animal is harvested, the implanted ear is discarded. So there is no chance that an implant could enter the food supply chain.

It is true that beef from implanted cattle contains greater estrogen by one nanogram (one billionth of a gram) per three-ounce serving in comparison to non-implanted beef (3 nanograms vs. 2 nanograms, respectively). Both of these amounts are minimal compared to the estrogen activity in many plant products. Consumers should also be aware that, when they eat meat, residues of the natural hormones are rapidly excreted and have little to no impact on human biology.

Marketing beef to consumers

In the retail case, beef cannot be marketed as “hormone-free” because all plants, animals and humans produce hormones naturally to properly regulate biologic functions.

Beef can be labeled “naturally raised” or “raised without hormones” and must abide by the USDA voluntary claim standards “FSIS Labeling Guideline on Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submissions.”

Consumers that prefer to buy naturally raised or Organic beef pay a premium. Beef produced from implanted cattle can provide consumers a more economical and sustainable product that should be recognized as safe and wholesome.

For more information about the use of hormones in beef production, visit the Meat Mythcrushers website.

Megan Webb is an Extension beef specialist and assistant professor in the animal science department who specializes in beef production systems.

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