By Maynard van der Galien
I dont like it when I see beef advertised as “hormone-free beef” because there is no such thing as hormone-free beef. Occasionally I see such a sign at a farmers market and I will go over and tell the vendor that its giving a wrong message to consumers.
Hormones occur naturally in all animals, plants and people.
Promote the beef as “no hormone implants used” or “no growth promotants used” or, simply, “organic beef.” That would be much better, I tell the vendor. Last year I didnt see any “hormone-free beef” signs anywhere so my effort to correct this must have worked.
There are, however, both natural and synthetic versions of natural hormones approved by Health Canada for safe use in beef, and some beef farmers will choose to use them. Its not a new practice and has been around since the mid-1950s.
Using hormone implants in cattle (steers) help them convert the food they eat into muscle more quickly and easily. This means they will develop more lean meat.
In Canada and the U.S., an animal can be given a hormone implant (also called growth promotant) early on. It works via a tiny implant placed under the outer skin of the ear. These are slow-release products that last about 180 days, but are used long before (at least 200 days) an animal heads to market.
You could say its good for the environment as fewer crops are needed to feed the animal, less manure is produced and fewer gasses.
Eighteen months ago, A&W restaurant made the decision to source their beef products from producers who are not using hormones or steroids.
“Beef raised without the use of hormones and steroids” is their advertising slogan and it has driven up sales at A&W up 10 per cent in a single year. The fast-food chain has been able to open 30 new stores across Canada. One opened in Renfrew last December. It has 770 outlets across Canada.
I checked out the one in Renfrew and was surprised by all the propaganda on the wall as you enter. The order counter is confusing so much stuff there about hormones and steroids. But guess what? They dont promote their beef as “hormone-free.” I would certainly stir up a fuss if they did. They also dont advertise their beef as “Canadian beef” because most of their beef comes from Montana and Australia.
A&W certainly overuses the words “hormones” and “steroids”. Those two words conjure up a lot of concern for people. Are they really concerned about healthier eating, or by their bottom line profits? Whats going on?
Canadas Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) has collected some interesting stats on the estrogen level in beef. A 75-gram serving of beef from cattle treated with hormone implants contains two nanograms (ng = one-billionth of a gram) of estrogen.
“A person would need to eat 3-million beefburgers from implanted cattle to get as much estrogen as the average adult woman produces every day, or 50,000 hamburgers to get as much estrogen as the average adult man produces every day,” says BCRCs science director, Dr. Reynold Bergen.
“Beef is a really excellent source of protein, zinc, iron and a lot of other essential nutrients. Its a really poor source of hormones.”
Considering there are about 45,000 ng of estrogen in 75 grams of white bread, the bun probably has far more estrogen than the beef!
If you need an explanation to go with the stats, the short of it is that cattle, alongside people and all other animals and plants, naturally produce hormones that are vital to growth, development and health.
Thats why meat and plants can never be hormone-free.
Promoting beef as raised without the added use of hormones and steroid hormones seems rather redundant as far as beef production goes, Bergen says.
The Canadian Animal Health Institute reports that steroid hormones have a long safety record without incident for cattle and consumers dating back to their introduction in Canada in the 1960s and 1950s in the U.S. They are also approved for use in Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, Chile and another 24 countries.
The World Health Organization, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the European Community Scientific Committee and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives agree that hormones used in beef cattle production dont pose a health risk to humans.
Maynard van der Galien has been to beef feedlots that have over 100,000 head on feed at one time. “Its really something to see.”