Hormones given a bad rap

Hormone growth promotants: how a catchy story got in the way of truth


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HGPs cause no harm to cattle and years of scientific research have shown that meat from them is completely safe for human consumption.

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Which food contains more hormones: tofu or beef?

The reason many Australians struggle to answer this simple question correctly is that marketing campaigns have unfairly demonised a category of animal supplements known as hormone growth promotants (HGPs). The strategists behind these campaigns have engineered a situation in which a catchy story about “natural” production has hijacked a conversation that should have revealed the truth about HGPs.

HGPs are simply supplements comprising naturally occurring hormones such as oestrogen, androgen, testosterone and progesterone that are already found in most animal and plant life.

In Australia some beef cattle are treated with HGPs. These cause no harm to the animals and scientific research has shown that meat from them is completely safe for human consumption.

This is in part because the level of hormones, or “estrogenic activity”, present in the resulting beef is incredibly low.

Research published by SAFEMEAT, the partnership between the red meat livestock industry and Australia’s state and federal governments, reports that a 100-gram serving of beef from a steer treated with HGPs contains just 2 nanograms of estrogenic activity. The same-sized serving from a non-HGP-treated steer contains 1.4 nanograms.

You would need to eat more than 77kg of beef from treated steers in one sitting to ingest the same estrogenic activity as you do from eating one egg, or 200kg to receive the same as from a single average serving of cabbage. According to the US-based ENOUGH Movement, tofu contains 10 million times the estrogenic activity of implanted beef, and soy flour 67.5 million times that beef’s level.

In fact, the bodies of both women and men naturally produce many thousands of times more oestrogen every day than that found in a meal of beef steak.

Despite these proven statistics, in a bid to differentiate their product to sell more of their beef, one major supermarket launched a “no added hormones” marketing campaign in 2011.

The R&D organisation that serves Australia’s beef cattle, sheep and goat producers, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), spoke out strongly against this blatantly self-serving commercial move. It accused the supermarket of shocking consumers into thinking beef from cattle treated with growth-promoting hormones was unsafe, despite scientific research having shown this was definitely not the case. Unfortunately, that campaign remains in play today, and has been replicated by many smaller purveyors of beef, and a major fast food chain.

It is crucial that these implications do not alarm consumers and undermine the trust they rightly have in the safety and quality of Australian beef. In Australia, HGPs are administered as a small, slow-release pellet that is placed under the skin on the back of one ear.

Various types of HGP implants gradually release hormones to increase growth rates by up to 20 per cent on average from about three months to 12 months of age.

Not only are HGPs perfectly safe for people as well as for the animals treated with them, they are also good for the environment.

That’s because cattle that receive an HGP implant reach their target weight faster, which means less feed and water are needed to produce the same amount of beef and lower greenhouse gas emissions are generated.

HGPs have been used in Australia since 1979. Australian beef producers must declare whether they have used HGPs and the Government has in place a strict monitoring program. This is because one of Australia’s high-value export markets, the European Union, has not allowed the use of HGPs since 1988, despite the World Trade Organisation, World Health Organisation and scientific committees in Australia and North America having found no evidence to justify this ban.

The existence of this EU ban and decades-worth of other negative stories about hormones have primed consumers to be wary of HGPs. This has made them an easy target for negative marketing campaigns, regardless of the facts about hormones in our food.

  • Jessica Ramsden is head of corporate and government affairs for Elanco Australasia.
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