A Muscle Drug For Pigs Comes Out Of The Shadows
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In the coming months, a few of you, when shopping for pork, might see a new and unfamiliar phrase on the packaging - produced without the use of ractopamine. Ractopamine is a drug that's widely used on pigs, but this new label may put pressure on farmers to drop it. NPR's Dan Charles has this story.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Meet the man who wants to get America talking about ractopamine.
DAVID MAREN: I am David Maren, founder of Tendergrass Farms.
CHARLES: Maren first heard about ractopamine years ago. He was just getting into the all-natural pork business - raising pigs outside on pasture. He was talking with his cousin who grows pigs the conventional way in big hog houses.
MAREN: And at one point, I mentioned to him something like, well, I know you use hormones to raise your pigs, so that's why they grow so fast. And he said, no, hormones are illegal in pork production in this country. We don't use hormones, and we never have. We do use ractopamine.
CHARLES: Maren was surprised. He never heard of ractopamine.
MAREN: It's not something that I hear anybody talking about.
CHARLES: Yet most pigs in America get this drug. It's a so-called beta-agonist. It acts a little bit like adrenaline. It gets the pig to put on more muscle more quickly. The Food and Drug Administration says it's safe. It approved ractopamine for use in pigs 16 years ago. But the drug still arouses some controversy. Safety regulators in some other countries have decided there's not enough evidence yet to prove that it's safe.
MAREN: The European Union bans it, China, Russia.
CHARLES: Also, separate from any human health concerns, there have been thousands of reports of animals suffering health problems when they get too much of this drug. Now, there are pigs that don't get any ractopamine. Organic port producers definitely don't use it. Natural pork producers probably don't. But you wouldn't know that from the labels. It's never mentioned. David Maren decided he wanted to tell the world that his company's pasture-raised pork is ractopamine-free. He thought consumers might pay a little extra for that.
MAREN: Tendergrass Farms is always trying to look to get as much value for our products as possible.
CHARLES: So last year, he drew up a label that said our pigs are never fed beta-agonists like ractopamine - drugs widely used as artificial growth promotants in the pork industry today. Labels on meat have to get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, though, and officials there said, no, you can't say that. They didn't give Maren a reason. Philip Derfler, who's deputy administrator of the USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service, told NPR, the language seemed too confusing.
PHILIP DERFLER: Apparently, judgment was made that that information wasn't being presented in a way that would be understandable to the consumer.
CHARLES: But Maren kept pushing. He submitted a new label that simply said, the pork product was made with no ractopamine - a beta-agonist growth promotant. And last week, the USDA approved it. When it shows up in stores a few months from now, it will be the first meat label that explicitly mentions ractopamine. But Maren thinks it won't be the last one.
MAREN: I imagine that if anyone in the industry is talking about it, then everyone has to talk about it.
CHARLES: And this worries some conventional pork producers, like David Hardin in Danville, Ind.
DAVID HARDIN: When you put a label like that on there, it will immediately, you know, make the consumer think, well, what is this? It must be something bad.
CHARLES: And that could lead to pressure on American farmers to stop using a drug that Hardin says is safe and valuable. In fact, some farmers are feeling that pressure already for another reason. One very big buyer of pork, the entire country of China, is demanding ractopamine-free pork. Some big pork processors are asking farmers to deliver it.
HARDIN: If you sell to a processor that either does export to China or could potentially export to China, then you're probably going to see some pressure back.
CHARLES: Pressure to stop using ractopamine. Hardin says farmers are divided about how they should respond. Some say this is such a good tool, we should not give into demands that we drop it. And others say I'll follow the market. If shoppers are willing to pay more for pork labeled ractopamine-free, that's what I'll produce. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.