Organic: More than Just Hormone-Free

If you purchase meat regularly, it’s quite likely you may have come across meat products that display the labels  “hormone-free” or “raised without the use of added hormones.”  In a recent premium meat market study, OCO found that 44% of food and grocery retailers surveyed offer products with these claims.  

So what does this mean? Are these products meant to be better for your health? The environment? The animals? 

In this post, we’ll explain exactly what these claims mean. And though organic meat is also raised without the use of hormones, we’ll detail how organics are also much more than just “hormone-free.”  We’ll guide you through the differences of these claims to equip you to make informed choices when preparing for your next family barbeque. 

What are hormones?

Hormones are “messengers” in living organisms controlling and coordinating activities throughout the body, such as growth and reproduction. They are necessary for healthy development and functioning. Both natural and synthetic hormones are used by some farmers in the raising of livestock. There are six hormonal growth promoters approved in Canada for use in beef cattle. 

Beta-agonists, though not technically a hormone as they do not affect the hormone levels in animals, are also used as a feed additive to promote growth in animals. Beta-agonists, approved for use in turkeys, cows (non-dairy) and pigs in Canada, attach to muscle and fat cells and promote rapid cell growth. They allow animals to grow bigger in less time and with the use of less space when compared to animals on beta-agonist-free diets. 

Why are hormone additives used?

Conventional farmers use hormones and beta-agonists to improve efficiency in their operations. These additives speed growth periods and increase the overall muscle mass of animals making each animal carcass more profitable in a shorter period of time. 

What do the claims “Hormone Free” or “Raised Without Added Hormones” mean?  

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), which oversees food labelling, states that any meat, poultry and fish products that carry the claim “raised without hormones” must not have administered hormones or beta-agonists to the animal in any way. Additionally, it is prohibited to administer hormones to the lactating mother of the animal in question.

Claiming products are “hormone-free” is actually against CFIA regulations as it conveys the message that the product contains zero hormones. This is untrue as all animals make use of naturally occurring hormones in physiological development processes. 

Growth hormones are only permitted in beef cattle, so any other meat products bearing the claim “raised without the use of hormones” must also display that no other like-kind products could be expected to make use of hormones either. For example; chicken, which does not allow for the use of hormones or beta-agonists could display the claim “raised without the use of hormones like all chickens in Canada.” This is to avoid misleading the consumer into believing they are purchasing a value-added product. 

The term “no growth stimulants” is also misleading and considered unacceptable by the CFIA as natural or supplemental vitamins would fall into this category.

Where are hormones used in Canada?

In Canada, beef cattle are the only animals to which growth hormones can be administered. The use of beta-agonists is permissible in the raising of beef cattle, pigs and turkeys in Canada. 

All Canadian dairy cows are raised without hormones, including the hormone Recombinant Bovine Somatotropin (rBST), a common growth hormone used in American dairy cows. rBST is banned in Canada due to concerns associated with human and animal health as acknowledged by Health Canada. In fact, Canada’s banning of rBST was a controversial affair. Health Canada scientists Chopra, Lambert and Haydon “blew the whistle” on Health Canada by testifying to the Senate that government officials were pressuring them to approve the drug despite questions surrounding its safety in 1989.

The new United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement (USMCA) brings rise to concerns that more American-rBST-produced milk and dairy products will become available in the Canadian market. Concerns are directed at the consumer’s inability to identify these products as currently, no labelling requirements with American milk exist. The Dairy Farmers of Canada suggests that for consumers to be certain their dairy products are free of synthetic hormones, they should look for the Dairy Farmers of Canada logo on product packaging. Consumers can also look for the Canada Organic logo or the USDA Organic logo, as the organic standards prohibit the use of veterinary drugs like hormones to promote growth.

One additive that can be found in some Canadian products is ractopamine; a common beta-agonist that has recently found its way into the media (check out our blog post about it!). It is permissible for farmers to administer ractopamine as a feed additive to cows, pigs and turkeys. In fact, up until 2016, before the CFIA updated their criteria for Method of Production Claims, beta-agonists like ractopamine were not included in the definition for “raised without added hormones” as they are not technically a “hormone”. So pork, beef or turkey products bearing this claim prior to 2016 may have contained ractopamine. 

Currently, as the majority of the international market won’t accept products containing the drug, Canada has the Canadian RactopamineFree Pork Certification Program which provides assurance to international buyers that pigs raised according to the program standards have never come in contact with ractopamine. These certificates have been the cause of a past conflict with Chinese importers, where they found 190 pork producers have falsified certificates in Canadian pork shipments.  Not only did this controversy negatively affect Canada’s credibility as a trade-partner but it threatened to significantly impact the Canadian economy as China is Canada’s third-largest export market for pork; a market valued at $600 million in 2018. 

There is also a large export demand for cattle that have been produced without growth promotants. The CFIA oversees the Canadian Beta Agonist-Free Beef Certification Program, a program similar to the Ractopamine-Free Pork program, which complies with import requirements set by countries that do not allow the use of feeds containing beta-agonists to be used during the raising of animals destined for human consumption.  Canada’s largest market for beef is the domestic market and our largest export market is the US (where ractopamine is also permitted as a feed additive), and certification under this program is not required for domestic or US sales. 

What is the market demand for meat raised without hormones?

Recent trends show  Canadians putting more thought and care into where their food is coming from and how it was raised or grown. A poll conducted by NRG Research Group reveals that nearly 90% of Canadians would be willing to pay more for meat that they know has been raised in humane conditions. While conducting research for our Premium Meat Marketing Study (which compares current premium meat labelling practices, standards and production requirements, pricing, marketability and consumer awareness and demand for various premium meat labels in Ontario), OCO found that the beef industry is responding to these consumer interests.

An example of how chicken products must use the “raised without the use of hormones” claim

Though “local” and “grass-fed” were the most prominent of claims amongst beef products, OCO found that nearly twenty-six percent of beef products offered through specialty retailers possessed “free from the use of hormones” labelling. Seventeen percent of pork products and thirteen percent of chicken products were found with similar labelling. Lower rates of “free from added hormones” is likely lower in chicken products due to the labelling requirements mentioned previously which require all chicken products to include “as are all chickens in Canada” in their labels.  Additionally, any pork products that bare this claim must also avoid the use of ractopamine and other beta-agonists as required by the CFIA, which could account for lower rates of this claim on pork products. 

Organic: More than just “hormone-free”

Organic meat products, according to the CFIA, must be free from any synthetic growth or reproductive hormones. But organic meat is much more than just hormone-free. Organic practices also require that the animal be raised without antibiotics, have outdoor space to roam, have more indoor space, and that they consume organic feed

In order to label food as “organic,” producers must adhere to the Canadian Organic Standards, and undergo inspection and certification processes annually. These processes are conducted by a third party certification body as required under the Safe Foods For Canadians Regulations and enforced by the CFIA. 

This is not the case for “free from added hormones” labelling. The guidance from the CFIA in labelling practices is that they must be “truthful and not misleading for consumers.” While it is the responsibility of the CFIA to govern food labelling, the organization takes a risk-based approach. This means that it is ultimately the responsibility of the regulated parties (i.e. retailers, food processors) to be knowledgeable of the regulations and comply fully. Operators must be able to substantiate the claim to the CFIA if inspected, but there is no mandatory or regulated certification process to use the claim “raised without added hormones”.

Why do these claims matter and what should you consider when purchasing meat?

The main benefits for livestock farmers in using hormone and beta-agonists are that cattle and swine are able to grow much more quickly in a shorter period of time while using less land and water resources. Beta-agonists are used during the “finishing stage” which is essentially the process of packing on the final pounds into a fully developed animal to be made ready for sale. In beef cattle, for example, the finishing stage lasts 30 days and with the use of beta-agonists cows can experience an increase in red meat yields at 1.5% or 35 additional pounds per cow, resulting in major profit gains for the producer, and lower prices for consumers. However, there are other factors to take into consideration when balancing the economic advantages of hormone use with potential animal welfare, health and environmental consequences.

Environment

While the use of growth hormones in cattle may reduce the amount of land and water resources needed for production, there are trade-offs when hormones enter the environment through manure or fertilizer run-off.  Some studies in the US have linked growth hormone presence in water systems to adverse endocrine-disrupting effects on aquatic and other wildlife, such as the masculinization of females, feminization of males, and reduced fertility in fish. Other research has found that these additives may persist in the environment for much longer than we originally thought, suggesting further research needs to be done to examine the long-term consequences that these substances may have on the natural environment. 

When good pasture management practices are used, such as rotational grazing, there can be positive environmental benefits. Animals raised according to organic standards must have access to the outdoors which does require more land than conventional farming, but pasture is effective is sequestering carbon while also promoting biodiversity in plant and animal life. Our blog “Organic: More than Just Grassfed” goes into more detail on the impacts of pasture access and grass-feeding in the raising of livestock.

Animal welfare

Studies have been published which find linkages between animal disease and suffering and the use of added hormones and beta-agonists, which speed animal growth. For example, ractopamine has been found to create anxious and sometimes aggressive behaviour in pigs. Beta-agonists have also been linked to Fatigued Cattle Syndrome (FCS), with symptoms that affect mobility, including rapid breathing, lameness, and reluctance to move. Bovine Growth Hormone (rBST), an additive used in the raising of some dairy cows in the USA, undeniably creates reproductive health complications, painful swollen udders and hoof and leg issues in cows. 

Health effects 

Results from studies connecting hormone and beta-agonist additives to human health complications have been inconsistent. There are six hormonal growth promoters approved in Canada for use in beef cattle. These additives have been found to affect human growth and development and increased risk of cancer. Research on beta-agonist additives and human health has also found instances of heart complications and developmental, neurobiological, genotoxic and carcinogenic effects in people that consume meat raised with these drugs. 

Although these hormones are allowed, Health Canada regulates the maximum residue limits (MRL for short) for all veterinary drugs that could be found in food, including hormones and beta-agonists. These limits set the maximum quantity of the additive that can exist in the animal tissue at the time of sale that is considered “safe” for human consumption. 

However, other governments believe that there is not enough evidence showing that even trace amounts of added hormones are safe for human consumption. For example, ractopamine is banned in about 160 countries, including the European Union, Russia and China due to concerns about human health effects. The European Union has also banned the use of growth-promoting hormones since 1988, finding that there is no acceptable daily intake for any of the six hormones that are approved for use in Canada.

In closing…

Choosing local organic animal products supports your personal health, the welfare of animals, a healthy environment and a sustainable livelihood for Canadian farmers. Be sure to stay informed on the other benefits of organic by reading our other “More than Just” blogs or purchasing our Premium Meat Report.

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