The news has been filled in recent months with stories about the surreptitious use of performance enhancing drugs by many of our sports heroes. Superstars like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Marion Jones reportedly have used steroids to pump up their bodies and give them a competitive advantage. Others, such as New York Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte have had growth hormones injected into their bodies. Sports fans and much of the public have been saddened and dismayed by these stories. These gifted athletes are supposed to be role models for our children and youth.
What the news reports have not told us is that all of us, unless we are vegans or observe a strictly organic diet, are unwittingly taking these or similar potentially hazardous substances regularly into our bodies. The same kinds of hormones outlawed for athletes are approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for use in the cattle that supplies our meat. We are all Barry Bonds-except we are not taking these substances voluntarily and we are not rewarded with millions of dollars a year for subjecting ourselves to the attendant risks.
We ought to worry about what these substances do to us-and especially to our children. The kinds of foods our children love best, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, milk, are often filled with these kinds of substances. Beef, chicken, milk, and other foods we consume daily are laden with anabolic steroids and growth hormones, not to mention antibiotics and arsenic, all to increase production and profits for agribusiness.
An estimated 80 percent of our beef cattle are treated with anabolic steroid hormones, either in their feed or, most often, with a controlled released implant in their ears. (The ears of slaughtered cattle are then often sold for use in animal feed, pet food and in formulating cosmetics.) The hormones increase the weight of the cattle sufficiently to give the cattle growers an additional profit of $40 per head after deducting the price of the additives.
Then there is milk. Industrial dairy farms keep their cows perpetually pregnant with artificial insemination, a process that produces sky-high levels of hormones including progesterone, estrogen and a hormone known as Insulin-like Growth Factor or IGF-1. The levels of IGF-1 in dairy cattle are raised still more by injection. The process, according to Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at Harvard University, ‘ignites the fire that increases the likelihood of cancer.’
The FDA also approves of the use of arsenic and antibiotics in the diets of chickens, hogs and other animals. Levels of these chemicals can build up in the small bodies of children. ‘Americans who consume chicken, such as my son who appeared to exist largely on chicken wings during high school, may be exposed to arsenic at levels far higher than recommended,’ said Ellen Silbergeld a toxicologist at the John Hopkins school of public health.
Agribusiness insists that hormone-treated food is safe. The dairy industry, for example, vehemently disputes that cows treated with IGF-1 present elevated health risks. It contends there is no proof that it does pose a risk, and that ‘milk is milk’ with or without the substance.
The industry is right that there is usually no proof-it is rarely possible to prove conclusively that a given substance causes a specific illness in a specific human. But there is a substantial body of evidence that the substances put into our food can and do have serious health effects.
Studies have shown that consumption of hormones by a pregnant woman may distort her baby’s sexual, intellectual and behavioral development. Hormone residues have been implicated in the early onset of puberty in girls, which puts them at a greater risk of developing breast cancer and other forms of cancer. Dr. Shanna Swan of the University of Rochester found that the consumption of beef by pregnant mothers could affect their son’s sperm quality, even causing infertility. Steroids have also been linked to prostate cancer in some studies.
Americans enjoy an ample supply of relatively cheap food. There is no reason this cannot continue without subjecting us to potentially dangerous anabolic steroids and other hazardous substances on our dinner plates. These substances are used so that agribusiness can grow its livestock in mammoth factory farms where hundreds of thousands of animals are packed together in unsanitary conditions or produce extra pounds of meat or milk so that its profits can increase. Agribusiness is able to do so because government, which is supposed to look after the health of its citizens, has instead given industry a free rein to do as it will.
We can have a clean and naturally raised food supply. It is time for a whole new ballgame.
(c) 2007 Blue Ridge Press
Philip Shabecoff is a journalist and author. His latest book, Poisoned Profits, co-authored with his wife, will be published by Random House in August 2008.