Eating the Brown Acid

paintingThe surrealism packed in Stephanie Strom’s piece on a new ractopamine-free label the USDA approved turns the newsprint into blotting paper.

Ractopamine hydrochloride, developed under the Dickensian proprietary name of Paylean, is a beta-agonist given to up to 80% of U.S. hogs. It mimics stress hormones, adding muscle weight on less feed.

Greenwashing amok, Eli Lilly, which originally developed the drug as an asthma treatment for humans, argues in reducing the feed used, ractopamine lowers the carbon footprint of the livestock industry.

Organic meat producers such as Applegate and Niman Ranch source animals that are raised without the drug. Strom reports USDA recently approved an application by Tendergrass Farms, a company that markets “natural” and organic meats, to add “produced without ractopamine” to its packaging.

The FDA claims the drug, which China, Russia and 158 other countries have banned, induces no human side effects. The contention isn’t water-tight, however. One industry-sponsored study on only six healthy human subjects found elevated heart rates and such pounding in the chest as to lead to one subject’s participation discontinued.

The effects of the family of ractopamine drugs may extend out to the greater environment and, the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club argue, should be subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment. But, mirroring the treatment of GMO proprietary data,

“[The FDA has] regulations that say because of confidential business information on pharmaceuticals they don’t have to disclose that environmental review to the public until after they’ve approved the drug,” says [Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety]. “That takes away the public’s ability to be able to respond and provide additional data they have, be that public studies or otherwise. So the FDA is only looking at the pharmaceutical industry’s data.”

The effects on the hogs, however, is another matter. Helena Bottemiller reported in 2012 that as of March 2011, 160,000 adverse events had been reported to the FDA, “Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk and death.”

The FDA claims, Bottemiller writes, “such data do not establish that the drug caused these effects.” Hanging a refusal to actually test that possibility on the fallacy of illusory correlation is a cynically anti-science scientism.

One Iowan hog farmer told Strom the drug makes the pigs “really hyper — when I tried using it, I once went into a barn and my pigs were all standing on top of each other in one corner.”

Temple Grandin, the autistic animal welfare expert and professor, has argued ractopamine damaging to livestock,

“Back in August 2006, [three years after] ractopamine came on the market [for use with cattle], cattle started showing up in the meat packing plants that were stiff, sore and lame and showing heat stress symptoms like extended tongue,” Grandin says. “Hot weather seems to make it worse. And things all came to a head when ractopamine was introduced.

“I have seen cattle that were definitely sore, didn’t want to walk, wouldn’t get up. And they act like the floor’s red hot,” Grandin adds. “They’ll stand in the pen and shift back and forth, one foot to another. Coming down a truck ramp they’ll act like the ramp’s redhot —They don’t want to put their feet down. They’ll tip toe down the ramp in a really odd way because their feet are hurting.”

Grandin explains that in some very extreme instances cattle lost feet due to overdoses of the drug. She says that in addition to the drug creating health issues for animals, it degrades the quality of the meat by toughening it.

As with industrial stockbreeding in general, the animals are subjected to abusive diets that would kill them save for their slaughter at production’s end.

A National Pork Producers Council spokesman, however, took the psychedelic cake, a cruel phantasmagoria à la Francis Bacon — if you’ll excuse the bon mot — the painter and the philosopher both. There is a telling if wholly serendipitous irony the latter, an innovator of the scientific method, died from pneumonia he contracted studying the effects of freezing on the preservation of meat.

“We support allowing the market determine the use of ractopamine,” NPPC’s Dave Warner emailed Strom.  “If customers are willing to pay more, to cover the costs of additional feed, for ractopamine-free pork, great.”

In other words, Warner is bragging — in your face! — it’s a producer-led market. You have to pay to opt out of whatever poison the sector introduces depressing its costs, in this case padding profits as high as $5 a head.

And the alternatives are increasingly no such thing. Earlier this summer Hormel bought Applegate and, as Strom wrote up days following her ractopamine piece, Perdue acquired Niman Ranch.

We have here the failure of consumer activism, which does indeed force changes to the market.  Consolidation responds to competition with more consolidation.

Now agribusiness conglomerates can cover both sides of a bifurcating food system that reflects growing inequalities across the economy: gourmet (or just plain unadulterated) for the rich, processed shit for the rest.

Contrary to green capitalism’s sincerest hopes — now there’s a bad trip — voting with our dollars isn’t enough.

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