Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Hormones, Growth Promotants, Antibiotics and Ethics

A lot of people want to eat animals that haven't been fed antibiotics, hormones or growth promotants. American pork producers, including Cargill, one of the biggest, respond to these preferences, Here's a bit of a press release:
Cargill Meat Solutions has launched a new, all-natural, antibiotic-free pork brand. Dubbed Good Nature, the new pork line is sourced from Midwest family farm-raised hogs that are never administered antibiotics, growth stimulants or hormones. Moreover, Cargill says it also maintains strict natural standards during processing of the new pork line, which is minimally processed and contains no artificial ingredients.

“When you’re good at something, people say you’re a ‘natural,’” said Joe Linot, pork marketing manager, Cargill. “We’re a natural at natural pork. Our Good Nature pork allows the quality and flavor of pork to be the focus of consumers’ eating experiences – without ever using antibiotics or growth hormones.”
Cargill has a terrible image with some consumers - but they do respond to customer demands. E.g. they compete with Niman Ranch, and have beaten them on meat quality. Now they are producing natural pork.

Maybe one day Cargill will produce organic pork, or even Mangalitsa pork. If enough people demand it, or if technology makes it possible for them to do it cheaply, I expect they will.


Growth hormones are illegal. But growth promotants like beta agonists are legal, and the sort of things that consumers think of as "hormones" - the way some people think of antimicrobials as antibiotics, even though they are different things.

We learned in Austria that quickly grown meat doesn't taste good. If a pork producer cares about meat quality, that's a good reason to avoid growth hormones and growth promotants.

Yet "no hormones" means none at all. There are a lot of hormones - just look at the list for humans (which isn't so different for pigs). Are all hormones bad? Can they possibly all be avoided?

E.g. melatonin is an antioxidant found in animals and plants. Some plants contain a lot of melatonin. You have to figure that intentional or not, all pigs are going to eat naturally occurring melatonin, even the ones sold as "hormone-free".

A typical hormone given to sows is oxytocin. It helps them to farrow by inducing contractions. Administering oxytocin to sows that need it is humane - and not giving it is inhumane. Not giving oxytocin might cause a sow unnecessary suffering or even death.

In humans, oxytocin has a half-life of 3 minutes in the blood. Even if a sow was given an injection of oxytocin and you ate her, you'd not be impacted by it: there couldn't be much in the sow's bloodstream by the time you killed her, and any of it that you consumed would be destroyed by your GI tract.

Yet the "no hormone" policy has an economic impact: a very good tasting sow raised in an otherwise unobjectionable way will get marketed with the conventional sows. The producer and the consumer lose out, due to the "no hormone" standard being too broad.

The normal way of ensuring that animals given antibiotics or hormones don't get marketed as antibiotic-free or hormone-free is to notch their ears. When you give them their first shot that matters, you cut off part of their ear (this only has to happen once). Later on, it is easy to distinguish the clean ones from the tainted ones, just by checking the ear.

It seems downright cruel to give a sow having a tough time farrowing a shot of oxytocin followed up by cutting off part of her ear. If nothing else, the next time you need to get that sow to do something, she's going to be thinking about you hurting her.


The situation with anitbiotics is far more complicated and interesting. Here's an interesting article about antibiotics and animals. I like it because it rationally discusses an issue about which most people are merely emotional and uninformed.

There's a misconception that animals given antibiotics are given them up until slaughter. That's not true. There are laws about this. There's a withdrawal period, which allows the chemical residues to leave the animal's system.

There's another misconception that farm animals are given antibiotics because they are sick. Producers primarily give animals antibiotics because it helps them to gain weight faster. The Austrian wisdom is that quick gain is bad. If you want the best meat, you'll avoid sub-therapeutic antibiotics.

Looking at therapeutic antibiotics. Forcing animals to live without any antibiotics is inhumane, just as denying treatment to sick humans is inhumane. Countries with primitive agriculture, where they don't use antibiotics, have less healthy animals and humans. Catastrophic outbreaks are more common. It is horrible to think of people and animals regularly dying of infections - but that's exactly what happens when you don't have antibiotics.

Of course, feeding antibiotics subtherepeutically, to get extra efficiency, isn't medically necessary or advisable from a meat quality perspective. One can imagine a world where we'd use the minimum amount of antibiotics required to humanely raise animals.

Consider the Producer

If one is participating in natural pork program like Cargill's no-hormone, no-antibiotic one mentioned above, and you animals start to get sick, what do you do? In the old days, they'd get sick and either make it or not - there weren't any drugs.

These days, you could avoid treating them, in the hopes of being able to market your animals at the premium price. Or you can treat the sick ones and market them differently.

There's problems with both of those solutions.
  • If you avoid treatment, that's inhumane and wasteful. More animals will get sick, you'll lose money.
  • If you just treat the sick ones, you have to somehow identify them. How do you do that economically? You generally can't. If you go in and give one a shot (and notch its ear, so it gets marketed with the tainted animals), he's probably already spread the disease to some other animals. You'll be going in there and giving more shots.
In practice, vets advise metaphylaxis - you medicate all the ones at risk and eliminate the pathogens once and for all. Sure, some healthy animals get meds - but they'd probably wind up needing them sooner or later. Medicating all the animals before many of them suffer is arguably the most humane way to go - but it costs the producer the most if he's participating in a no-antibiotics program.

Of course, the time when animals tend to get sick is when they are young. Any meds given then will be long out of their system by the time they are marketed. Yet if they receive antibiotics, they must be marketed in the conventional market. All this is suboptimal - in many cases, society is losing out on some good meat that is imperceptibly different from the no-antibiotics meat.

The incentives to cheat are huge. Disreputable producers of "no-antibiotic" products can earn much higher profits just by cheating. Honest producers are at a competitive disadvantage. There was a case in Germany where people sold conventionally produced pigs as organic pigs (German article), potentially earning 250,000 euros from the fraud. It reminds me of the famous low-fat donut producer who was relabeling normal donuts, making a fortune in the process.

A lot of pork producers don't want to produce no-hormone, no-antibiotic pork. The premium for the special stuff isn't high enough to make up for the extra bother and risk. One can imagine that having engaged in metaphylactic antibiotic use to fight diseases (therapeutic use) for decades, they'd be bothered to see their hogs get sick and then face the quandry of either cheating, medicating and losing money or not medicating and seeing the pigs suffer.

The Role of the Conventional Market

If there was no conventional market at all, sick animals in need of meds would have to be euthanized. Sows having difficult pregnancies would either die after suffering or make it after suffering, perhaps losing more piglets due to not receiving oxytocin. The ability of the extremely efficient conventional pork market to soak up the unwanted byproducts of "no hormone, no antibiotic" production saves some animals from suffering or pointless euthanization.

The existence of the conventional market keeps the costs of "no-hormone, no-antibiotic" meat cheap, in the same way that the market for chops keeps the price of picnic shoulders very low. People who eat the fancy stuff should be happy that not everyone insists on eating the fancy stuff.

Animal Byproducts

A lot of hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat programs require that animals not eat animal byproducts. You'll often read about them receiving all-vegetarian diets. For cows, that makes sense, but for pigs, chickens and other omnivores - humans included - it seems wrong to me, because it isn't natural.

Pigs love to eat meat. That includes bugs, rodents, birds, other pigs, etc. Traditional pig production - used to produce some of the most expensive hams in the world - means having pigs run around and eat what they find. Carrion is a favorite. Just as most people like to eat meat, so do pigs. Little pigs, in particular, need high protein, high fat diets to grow.

If you can't feed your weaner pigs blood or other animal proteins, you've got to feed them whey. Whey costs a lot, which is probably why Cargill's no-hormone no-antibiotic press release doesn't say "100% vegetarian" - they've decided that it would cost too much. They are almost certainly feeding their pigs bloodmeal and fat from pigs and cows.

In Closing

I recently had some pigs get sick. We tried just giving shots to the ones that needed treatment, but in the end engaged in metaphylaxis (medicating all at-risk pigs). I wish I'd gone that way from the start - it would have been more humane.

Ethically, Metaphylaxis is very interesting, because it shows that no-antibiotic programs can lead to less humane meat production by creating incentives that work against animal welfare.


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