By: Chloe Gresel, CanACT member, University of Guelph
The beef with growth implants in cattle production
There is much buzz in today’s media about wanting hormone free meat. Can I let you in on a secret? There is no such thing. You see, just like humans, all animals have naturally occurring hormones in their bodies. What the consumer is actually trying to get when they ask for “hormone-free beef” is animals that are raised with no hormones outside of their own. Companies such as A&W are trying to scare consumers into thinking that their products are better because they are using beef that is raised without growth hormone implants.
Can I let you in on another secret? Implants are not the enemy. Growth implants are used to help beef animals convert feed more efficiently. This means the animals develop more lean meat and grow more on less feed. Beef animals that are implanted have increased weight gain from 5 to 23 per cent and convert feed to meat 3 to 11 per cent more efficiently than non-implanted cattle. By using less feed, costs are reduced for the farmer and beef is kept at a reasonable price for the consumer. There is also a smaller environmental impact when cattle are implanted, as farmers are using fewer resources to get them finished and ready for harvesting. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Animal Science stated that if we were to remove growth implants from our cattle production system, we would need 10 per cent more cattle, 10 per cent more land and feed, and 7 per cent more fuel and fertilizers to raise the same amount of beef.
You might be thinking that it’s great that implanted beef has a smaller environmental impact, but you still don’t want all those extra hormones in your own body. Well then, let me share this tidbit of information: 15 ml of soybean oil has over 28,700 nanograms of plant estrogen, while a 100 gram serving of beef raised with growth hormones has only 2.2 nanograms. Surprising, isn’t it? Studies have shown that there are greater differences in hormone levels between the different sexes of cattle then there are between cattle raised with growth hormones versus cattle raised without growth hormones.
So, what exactly are these implants? Implants are a tiny pellet that is inserted in the back of an animal’s ear which stays and releases a small amount of hormones each day into the animal’s bloodstream. Implants contain estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, or a combination of these hormones. In Canada, we are prohibited from using implants that are strictly testosterone based. The hormones that are released work in conjunction with the animal’s own natural hormones to convert feed more efficiently, produce a leaner carcass, and promote larger growth. Depending on the implant brand and type, it will last anywhere from 60 to 168 days. At this point, the implant is no longer effective, and depending on the animal’s age and stage of growth, it will either be implanted again or will be ready for processing.
There are many considerations the farmer must think about before choosing a type of implant. Implants are designed specifically for certain age groups, sexes, and breed types. Cost is another factor that producers take into consideration, as the return of increased gains must be higher than the price paid for the implant and the labour needed to insert the implant into each animal.
Implants have been tested and found to be safe for humans by several food and drug agencies, including Health Canada, The World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. To ensure farmers are following proper protocols, beef is inspected and tested by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. In Canada, the level of synthetic hormones that can be left in beef is zero.
Eating beef that has been raised with growth hormones is not something that should be feared. As consumers, we need to take away the power of companies trying to scare us into thinking that their product is better because it was raised a certain way. At the end of the day, it really is up to you to decide what you are putting into your body, and I don’t know about you, but some steak sounds pretty good right about now.
Inside Farming is a series of articles written by Canadian Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow (CanACT) members at the University of Guelph.