Angst over beta-agonists in meat
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1999:
BANGKOK, KUALA LUM-PUR,
HONG KONG––A Thai FDA crackdown on
the use of beta-agonist stimulants in pork production
sounded like late response to old news
when announced in June 1999.
It wasn’t. Hong Kong is a key market
for Thai pork, and six Hong Kong residents
were ill from ingesting beta-agonist
residues with pork offal.
In 1998 Hong Kong banned the sale
of pig offal for four months after 17 people
suffered beta-agonist poisoning.
Beta-agonist traces were found then
in nine out of 14 pigs’ lungs originating from
four farms in Hong Kong and two farms in
Guangdong, on the Chinese mainland. Thai
pork was apparently free of beta-agonists––
and that’s how Bangkok wants to keep it.
The ongoing beta-agonist anxiety in
Thailand and Hong Kong were reminders that
the related scandals of the mid-1990s were
overshadowed, not resolved, when attention
shifted after March 1996 to the BSE/nv-CJD
crisis originating in Britain, foot-and-mouth
disease outbreaks in Taiwan, a deadly new
form of influenza leaping from ducks to
humans in Hong Kong, Newcastle disease in
Australia, and the Nipah virus crossing from
bats to pigs to people in Malaysia.
Common bacterial contamination of
meat is actually far more deadly to humans
than all the recent meat-linked global panic
issues combined. The known human toll from
all of them is under 160. One familiar bacterium,
listereria monocytogenes, by contrast
kills about 425 Americans per year, according
to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Others, such as salmonella, rarely
kill, but annually afflict more than 100,000.
But the panic issues tend to scare
meat-eaters because they often involve formerly
little known or unknown risks. Beta-agonists
are especially scary because they can’t
get into meat by accident. Animals ingest
beta-agonists only if the drugs are deliberately
given, using methods that bypass filtration by
their livers. Such drugs are administered only
if meat producers think they can get away with
putting consumers’ lives in jeopardy.
What are they?
Beta-agonists are a class of musclebuilding
hormonal steroids. They include the
synthetic steroid clenbuterol. Developed to
treat asthma, and illegally used to boost the
performance of racehorses and human trackand-field
athletes, beta-agonists can cause
humans who get even a fraction of the dose
often given to livestock to suffer potentially
fatal breathing trouble and heart palpitation.
Breaking first in France and
Germany during 1988, beta-agonist meat contamination
scares spread to Spain in 1990,
then rocked the livestock industries of the
Netherlands, Belgium, and Ireland.
The Belgian beta-agonist dealers
confirmed their disregard for human as well as
animal life in 1994-1995 by killing slaughterhouse
inspector Karel Van Noppen, 42; twice
bombing the home of Jaak Vandemeulebroucke,
an anti-hormone member of the
European Parliament; and beating other veterinarians
and inspectors, shooting at their
homes, firebombing their cars, and even
roughing up their children.
Noting that illegal beta-agonist use
was most often linked to “finishing” veal
calves for slaughter, Humane Farming
Association investigator Gail Eisnitz spent
most of 1993-1996 exposing use by U.S. vealers.
Veal industry suppliers John Doppenberg
of Vitek and Dan Shields of American Feeds
& Livestock were eventually convicted of
related federal crimes. Cases against several
others are reportedly still unresolved.
Winners at many of the most lucrative
livestock shows in the U.S. were meanwhile
caught using beta-agonists to “beef up”
their animals. Top 4-H and Future Farmers of
America exhibitors were repeatedly stripped of
prizes and showing privileges. At least 13
people including Oklahoma veterinarian Jerry
Bonham, 65, were convicted of illegally selling
But the problems go on. Iowa State
Fair Board officials in January 1999 acknowledged
having found beta-agonist traces in the
1998 4-H grand champion lamb raised by Troy
Schilder, then 19, of Grinnell. Schilder was
barred from exhibiting at the fair for life.
Beta-agonist testing results from
many major 1999 fairs are not yet available.