The sale of Smithfield Foods, the United States’ largest pork producer, to Shuanghui International, China’s largest meat company, raises new questions about the future of ractopamine, a controversial growth-promoting drug that is widely used in U.S. pork production and has long been the subject of trade disputes. As a report by the Food & Environment Network and NBC News explained last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ractopamine, a beta-agonist, more than a decade ago to improve the rate at which animals convert to feed to lean meat. Two dozen other countries, including Canada and Brazil, have also approved the additive for livestock production, but China, Russia, the European Union and several other countries question its safety and refuse to accept meat from animals raised on the drug. With export sales lagging, the U.S. pork industry has started scaling back use of the drug to gain greater access to China and Russia – two major export markets that have recently demanded that incoming meat be certified ractopamine-free. After converting its third slaughter plant to process only pigs not fed the additive, Smithfield Foods announced last month that it would be 50 percent ractopamine-free by June 1. According to the report in NBC News, industry experts say the long-running trade fight may have been a factor in the Smithfield deal, as China seeks to gain more access to pork:

“This is probably a direct result of the ractopamine issue,” said John Saunders, CEO of Where Food Comes From, a third party auditing company that helps companies verify marketing claims. IMI Global, Inc., a division of Where Food Comes From, has applied for a USDA verified process that would certify pork and beef as coming from animals not fed ractopamine or zilpaterol, another beta-agonist widely used in cattle. Under a similar program, the company already verifies that U.S. meat headed for the European Union meets their import requirements, which prohibit growth promoters of any kind. U.S. trade officials would not comment on when a certification program might be approved, but many in the industry expect it eventually will beview it as inevitable. “We’ve had conversations with a majority of beef and pork packers about their path forward on this issue,” said Saunders. “They’re all engaged in conversations about this.”

David Warner a spokesperson for the National Pork Producers Council would not comment on the Smithfield acquisition, but said it is not clear the deal changes the dynamics of the international dispute over the drug. “I don’t know that it changes anything, really,” said Warner. “As far as I know China is not relaxing its restrictions on ractopamine.” The U.S. government initially refused to meet China and Russia’s recent demands for ractopamine-free certification because trade officials believe the restrictions are unwarranted and not based on science. Russia responded by shutting down its market to U.S. beef, pork, and turkey in February. According to the report by FERN, “While China has continued to accept U.S. pork as long as companies assure it is ractopamine-free, but the Chinese government has stepped up residue testing in recent months and recently demanded third-party certification to verify the additive is avoided. According to the U.S. Meat Export Federation, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials have requested a meeting in Moscow June 17 to present Russian officials with a government-verified program to meet Russia’s demands.” While few consumers are aware of ractopamine’s use in meat production, the additive has for years been a source of conflict between countries that ban its use it, including the EU, and those that use it, including the U.S., which is aggressively pushing for greater access to markets for agricultural products. The EU has sharply questioned the science backing the drug. China says it’s worried about the higher levels of drug residues that can be found in pig organs, which are part of a traditional Chinese diet, and Russia claims the drug could pose health risks. U.S. trade officials say opposition to ractopamine is purely political. “The proof that has been presented does not satisfy us,” said Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s chief public health official, in February. “It does not stand up to criticism in terms of the methodology and the time over which the drug’s application was analyzed, and it does not answer the question regarding the drug’s accumulation in a human body.” After several years of infighting, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a U.N. food standards setting body, last summer agreed to an international standard for the level of ractopamine residues considered safe in meat products, but trade disputes have continued. The USDA is urging Russia and others to accept the Codex residue standard, which allows ractopamine at or below 10 parts per billion in muscle meat. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service does limited testing for ractopamine residues domestically. In 2011, the most recent year data was reported, 298 samples were screened for the drug; one was positive but below FDA’s safety standard. Consumer Reports did its own testing of 240 samples last year and found 20 percent were positive for the drug, but the levels did not exceed 5 ppb, far below the Codex limit as well as the FDA’s, which is 50 ppb for pork meat. U.S. officials say they have asked for but have not received any scientific justification from Russia or China to support their zero tolerance policies. Colleen Parr Dekker, a spokesperson for Elanco, the manufacturer of ractopamine, said the company is concerned about the broad impact a move away from beta-agonists could have on corn demand and the environment, since livestock would need more to produce the same amount of meat. Global AgriTrends, an industry analyst group, estimates that without the beta-agonists used by the vast majority of beef and pork producers, the meat industry would need to use 91 million more bushels of corn, worth more than $600 million. “Trade is clearly very important to our customers globally,” said Parr Dekker. “That’s why the adoption of a global human safety standard for food from animals fed ractopamine by the United Nations food safety standards body (Codex) was so important.  It is disappointing that we do see a few countries not honoring those global standards.” With such a Codex standard in place, the United States could challenge the restrictions at the World Trade Organization. As the report noted, in the U.S., some consumer advocates are worried that amid all the trade scuffles over the feed additive, the majority of ractopamine-free pork will be shipped abroad and not be an option for domestic consumers. “Americans aren’t getting the ractopamine-free pork,” said Elisabeth Holmes, a staff attorney for the Center for Food Safety, which has petitioned the FDA to reevaluate the drug’s impact on human health and animal welfare and lower the trace residue levels that the agency considers safe in meat products. “Smithfield’s announcement of going 50 percent ractopamine-free was clearly to benefit its share price days before the Chinese buyout, not to protect consumers.” In their petition to FDA, the Center for Food Safety and the Animal Legal Defense Fund cited a 2012 report by The Food & Environment Reporting Network/NBC News report that found ractopamine had been linked to more reported adverse drug experiences in more pigs than any other veterinary drug. Reports from producers commonly cited hyperactivity, trouble walking, and death. The FDA said the reports do not establish the drug caused the adverse health effects and maintains ractopamine is a safe and effective compound for food animal protection. According to Jim Herlihy, a spokesperson for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, much of the ractopamine-free pork now produced is actually sold domestically because the U.S. does not export whole hog carcasses, but instead just ships certain cuts that can be sold at a higher price abroad, like organ meats, feet, ears, and tails. “The majority of muscle cuts remain in the U.S., while more than 90 percent of certain cuts, primarily variety meat, go to export markets,” said Herlihy. “As the percentage of U.S. pork production that is ractopamine-free changes, so does the availability of that product to the U.S. market. This doesn’t address the scientific fact of whether ractopamine is safe when properly used in animal agriculture, which the FDA and Codex say it is, just the question of the availability of product.”