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Smithfield deal may change industry's use of drug

I had a case of hindsight not only being 20-20 last week, it was 50-50.

I was working on a story about the sale of Smithfield, a U.S. company and the world’s largest pork producer, to a large Chinese meat processor, Shuanghui International.

Funny, I thought at the time, I had watched a story surface the week before on Smithfield’s announcement that it would start raising half of its hogs without the use of ractopamine, a drug that helps pigs grow lean meat faster, making them more profitable in a shorter period of time.  The drug is banned in China and Russia, the story pointed out.

I forgot about that story again until last Wednesday, when news of the Smithfield deal broke.

Was the announcement that Smithfield would go 50-50 on use of ractopamine just a coincidence? A sign to the Chinese that Smithfield was serious about a drug-free product? Or was it a signal that the sale was coming?

First, I checked out the facts on ractopamine.  Helena Bottemiller a reporter for Food Safety News, published this investigative piece last year, writing that the drug is controversial, but approved for use in the U.S.

The drug, ractopamine hydrochloride, is fed to pigs and other animals right up until slaughter and minute traces have been found in meat. The European Union, China, Taiwan and many others have banned its use, citing concerns about its effect on human health, limiting U.S. meat exports to key markets.

Although few Americans outside of the livestock industry have ever heard of ractopamine, the feed additive is controversial. Fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the United States, it has resulted in more reports of sickened or dead pigs than any other livestock drug on the market, an investigation of Food and Drug Administration records shows.

Growing concern over sick animals in the nation’s food supply sparked a California law banning the sale and slaughter of livestock unable to walk, but that law was struck down by the Supreme Court Monday. Meat producers had sued to overturn California’s ban, arguing that the state could not supercede federal rules on meat production. The court agreed.

The FDA, which regulates livestock drugs in the United States, deemed ractopamine safe 13 years ago and approved it, setting a level of acceptable residues in meat. Canada and 24 other countries approved the drug as well.

The pork industry feels differently, saying ractopamine has been tested extensively and been approved by 28 regulatory agencies worldwide. From the website porkcares.org, which is funded by the National Pork Producers Council, the National Pork Board and other industry sources:

Ractopamine is used as part of a healthy, balanced diet for growing pigs. It works in the same way that human health supplements do. It is given to animals as part of their healthy, naturally balanced diet and helps pigs make the most of the food they eat by converting nutrients from fat to lean muscle. It is even water-soluble, meaning it can’t be stored in the body for any length of time and is eliminated quickly.

I asked Dan Norcini, an independent commodities trader, what he thought of the sale announcement coming just a week after the news that Smithfield was cutting its use of ractopamine in half. Norcini said he didn’t think that the two events were connected.

“Smithfield has been doing business with China for a while now. They understand the requirements of the Chinese when it comes to ractopamine,” he said. “They’re an integrated packer so they can raise their own hogs over there. … So the idea that Smithfield would have to change everything to do this, I don’t believe that’s correct.”

I put the same question to Elizabeth Holmes, an attorney at the Center for Food Safety, an environmental group. When she first heard Smithfield was going 50-50 on using ractopamine, she thought it was a competitive move by the company to provide consumers with a drug-free product.

Now, she calls the sale announcement “ironic.” When I asked her if all the drug-free product would be shipped to China, leaving the other half of Smithfield’s production for the U.S., she said she didn’t know. Holmes recently wrote that the “beneficiaries are unlikely to be Americans.”

“I’d love to see more transparency and accountability in this acquisition and to make it clear to who’s getting it and who’s not and why they’re only doing 50 percent,” Holmes said. “Why not go 100 percent free for all ractopamine? Why not go 100 percent free for antibiotics? There’s a number of public health concerns with these production companies in the first place.”

Reuters also noted the connection between Smithfield’s dropping ractopamine and its sale announcement, and said other companies may follow its lead.

Now Smithfield's move to eliminate ractopamine from more than half of its operations is likely to intensify questions both about the safety of medicated additives and about the livestock industry's increasing reliance on Big Pharma to help engineer the perfect pig - bigger and cheaper than ever.

The company's decision to break ranks also may pressure peers to follow its lead — or relinquish access to the world's fastest-growing food market, China.

What do you think? Will China's ban on ractopamine -- coupled with U.S. companies' desire for a new, large market for meat -- end use of the drug in the U.S.? Leave a comment or drop me a line at peggy.lowe@harvestpublicmedia.org.