Are hormones used in meat and poultry productions?

All animals, including humans, naturally produce significant amounts of hormones during their lifetimes since hormones are needed for normal growth and functioning. The use of added hormones is carefully regulated by law.

Federal law does NOT permit the use of added hormones in poultry or swine (pigs and hogs). Since hormones are not used in the production of poultry (chicken and turkey) or hogs, poultry and pork products sold in the United States do not contain any added hormones.

Cattle farmers use small amounts of hormones to increase rate of weight gain in animals. The amount of hormone found in beef products is negligible compared with the amount of hormones naturally produced by the human body. Beef from a bull has testosterone levels more than 10 times higher than beef from a steer (castrated bull) that has received hormones during production.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture monitors beef for hormone residues. Hormone residues in meat are not linked with any human health effect.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set strict tolerance levels for these hormones. Hormones are usually administered to cattle using an ear implant. This method ensures that hormone is released very slowly and remains at low concentrations within the animal. Numerous scientific reports and reviews have determined that natural and synthetic hormones are safe when used as directed in animals raised for food production.

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How are antibiotics used in meat and poultry?

The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of antibiotics in animal feed nearly 50 years ago. Antibiotics are used four ways in food animals: to treat disease, prevent disease, control disease and promote growth. Farmers use antibiotics to prevent, treat and control diseases such as pneumonia, hepatitis, and salmonellosis. Antibiotics can help promote growth in animals by controlling intestinal bacteria than can block nutrient absorption.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly two-thirds or 64% of all antibiotics used in the United States are given to treat human illnesses. Less than one-third or 30% of antibiotics are used to prevent and treat animal illnesses while 6% are used to promote animal growth.

Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that meat and poultry products contain high levels of antibiotic residues. Meat and poultry products are routinely tested by the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture for antibiotic residues, which if present at all, are typically at very low levels.

Concerns are increasing about the creation of antibiotic resistant microbial pathogens. One theory about the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens is that animals treated with antibiotics develop resistant strains of microbial pathogens that can be transferred to people when foods are not thoroughly cooked.

Scientists are still studying antibiotic resistance and ways to reduce its occurrence. The scientific community does not agree on whether reducing the use of antibiotics in animals will lead to less antibiotic resistance in humans. The National Research Council's Board on Agriculture carefully reviewed the use of antibiotics in food animals and concluded that while additional data is needed, use of drugs in the food animal production industry does not appear to be an immediate public health concern.

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Are organically produced foods more nutritious?

Foods labeled "organic" must meet the standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. These standards address what methods farmers use to raise animals and grow crops labeled as "organic." Farms, processing plants and companies must be inspected and certified by a government-approved entity before food products can be labeled "organic." Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. However, animal manures are approved as fertilizers, so that raw foods must be thoroughly washed before consumption.

USDA makes no claims that organic foods are more nutritious than conventionally-grown foods; they are produced using different methods. For example, organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones.

Numerous studies have examined the issue of whether organic foods are higher in nutrients than conventional foods. One recent study reviewed the scientific literature and found little difference between organic and conventional foods in terms of concentration of most vitamins, minerals and trace elements. There were some trends toward higher ascorbic acid (vitamin C) levels in leafy green vegetables and potatoes and some variations in the amounts and types of protein found in vegetables and cereal crops. However, the authors concluded that there is not enough evidence available to evaluate nutrient levels compare between conventional and organic foods. The authors, like many nutrition experts, noted that the key to improving health is a well-balanced diet from any source.

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What types of additives are used in meat and poultry products?

Fresh meats and poultry contain no additives, unless noted on the label. All additives used in preparing (e.g marinating, seasoning, etc.) or processing foods must appear on the product's ingredient list.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines a "food additive" as any substance used to provide a technical effect in foods. All food additives used in meat and poultry products are rigorously evaluated and monitored for safety by both the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the FDA. Many additives are considered to be "generally recognized as safe" or GRAS, and are considered to have a long, safe history of use in foods or have been proven safe by scientific studies. Spices, salt and sugar are examples of GRAS ingredients.

Many additives come from plant sources such as pineapple plants (bromelin), fig trees (ficin), seaweed (carrageenan), and papaya trees (papain).

Food additives serve many important purposes in food such as improving flavor and appeal, easing food preparation and processing, and extending freshness and safety. Here are just a few examples of additives and their functions:

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Why do some meat and poultry products have a Nutritional Facts label while others do not?

All meat and poultry food products that are cooked, processed or have more than one ingredient must carry a Nutrition Facts panel under Federal regulations.

Currently, single-ingredient, raw poultry and meat products are not required to have a Nutrition Facts Panel on packages but are covered by a voluntary nutrition labeling program which has been in use for the past 10 years. Many grocery stores provide this information by posting signs or by having the information readily available in brochures, notebooks, or leaflet form.

Many fresh meat and poultry products are cut and packaged at the grocery store and not at a centralized processing facility. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the voluntary labeling program so that small grocery stores (such as convenience stores and "mom and pop" type stores) would be spared the cost of printing fresh meat and poultry labels and applying them accurately to the products.

In the near future, USDA will require that all grocery stores supply nutrition labeling information for all single-ingredient, major cuts of meat and poultry either on the package or at the point-of-purchase (signs, brochures, etc.). In addition, all ground or chopped meats such as ground beef or turkey will be required to have nutrition labels on the package. The only exemptions for nutrition labeling of meat and poultry will be for non-major cuts (pigs feet, beef round rump, etc.). In addition, stores that qualify as small businesses will not be required to carry labels for chopped and ground meats.

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It seems that every week I hear that something does or doesn't cause cancer? What are the lifestyle and dietary factors associated with incidence of cancer? Is the risk of cancer lower for vegetarians than for people who consume meat?

Much research has been done to try to answer this question. Leading experts believe that a host of factors can play a role in good and bad health outcomes, including smoking, exercise level, weight, vitamin intake, environmental exposures, dietary patterns and genetics. For these reasons, it is extremely difficult to distinguish a single "cause" of cancer.

When researching these issues, two different approaches are commonly used.

In a case control study, a group of "cases" or people with a particular disease are compared to a group of people without the disease or "controls." The cases and the controls are interviewed about their diet, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, exercise levels and many other lifestyle factors. Often people are asked to recall these habits years later. Sometimes the memory may no be entirely accurate in recalling diet and health habits.

A prospective cohort study, by contrast, follows a large population forward into time, recording their habits as they occur and then measuring the outcomes. These studies are typically larger and able to gather more accurate information about actual habits.

Various cohort studies have focused on the question of whether vegetarians have a lower rate of various types of cancer, particularly colon cancer. One of the largest is the Oxford Vegetarian study, in which a total of 10,998 participants were followed for an average of 17 years. About 42 percent of the population was vegetarian. The
non-vegetarians in the study were recruited by the vegetarian participants, who were asked to nominate friends and relatives who ate animal proteins. Participants completed a simple food frequency questionnaire (validated for dietary fiber intake, but not other nutrients) as well as questions on other lifestyle factors related to health, such as smoking, alcohol consumption and amount of exercise. People were classified as either vegetarian (including lacto-ovo vegetarians, who drink milk and/or eat eggs, and vegans, who avoid all animal products) or non-vegetarians (meat eaters and those who only ate fish, but not meat).

The study did not find a significant difference in the risk of developing colorectal cancer between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. It also didn't find any increase in the risk of colon cancer with higher consumption of meat by non-vegetarians. Smoking was associated with an almost two-fold increase in risk of incidence of colorectal cancer.
Alcohol was also a significant risk factor, as was consumption of 15 or more slices of white bread per week, which may have been a marker for an unhealthy diet. A decrease in relative risk of about 40 percent was seen in those participants eating fresh or dried fruit five times or more per week compared with those eating less.

Because there were only 95 cases of colon cancer in total, it is difficult to draw general conclusions that can be used for dietary recommendations. However, smoking, alcohol consumption was associated with an increased risk, while those eating the most fresh and dried fruit were less likely to get colon cancer. Eating a diet that included meat was not linked to an increased incidence of colorectal cancer.

Consumption of meat has also been studied in connection with breast cancer. The Nurses' Health Study done by Harvard University followed almost 89,000 healthy, middle-aged women for 18 years, and their diets and health outcomes were monitored. The study was published in the March 20, 2003, International Journal of Cancer. It shows no association between eating meat and breast cancer.

Finally, consider the case of Seventh Day Adventists and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Some health studies have suggested that lower rates of cancer among Seventh Day Adventists are linked to their vegetarian diets. But Mormons consume meat. Also, both Mormons and SDAs shun tobacco and lead generally healthy lifestyles.

According to the National Cancer Institute, a Utah study found that Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists who consumed high levels of calcium had lower colon cancer rates than a group from the general population. Unlike the Seventh Day Adventists, however, the Mormon group had a consumption of meats and fat similar to that of the general population.

The Bottom Line
Research suggests that many factors are at work in the development of cancer and other diseases. The wisest course of action is a balanced diet, weight control, plenty of exercise and a healthy degree of skepticism about the "study of the week".

Find The Studies and Information Referenced Above

Facts about the Meat and Cancer Hypothesis

The truth about the Alleged Hot Dog and Cancer Connection

What is mechanically separated poultry (MSP) and is it healthy?

Yes.  MSP is safe and nutritious.  MSP’s nutrition profile can contain slightly higher levels of calcium and phosphorous – both essential nutrients – than poultry meat removed from bones by hand.  However, it remains an excellent source of nutrition.  Key facts about any product made with MSP are stated on the nutrition label.

For a backgrounder on MSP, click here

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