Mega-producer JBS USA has banned the use of ractopamine in the hogs it purchases because it sees a trade opportunity with China where the growth drug remains prohibited. JBS, owned by JBS S.A. based in Brazil, hopes to help China fill a huge gap created by the African swine disease by supplying it with ractopamine-free pork.
The Greeley, CO-based port producer, which stopped using the growth drug on its own in August 2018, has now announced it won’t buy hogs from any farms that use ractopamine. China, which prohibits hogs fed the growth drug, has been devastated in recent months by African swine fever. The disease is not harmful to humans but is always deadly to pigs.
By dropping the feed additive entirely, the Colorado-based company will accelerate competition for pork exports to China, the world’s largest pork consumer.
There is no vaccine for African swine fever, which broke out in China a year ago. The World Organization of Animal Health reports it has since spread to more than 50 counties, which are normally responsible for about 75 percent of the planet’s pork production. Dramatic reductions to China’s pig populations are occurring from the ASF outbreaks.
African swine fever is dramatically reducing the supply of hogs in these counties, creating enough demand to cause JBS to drop ractopamine to get into China. JBS USA sells pork under brands including Swift and Swift Premium. Until now, it has focused mainly on the domestic market, leaving China to Smithfield Foods. It is owned by China’s WH Group and bans ractopamine on company-owned and contract farms.
Tyson Foods is also reportedly looking at offering a ractopamine-free supply of hogs for the export market.
“We are confident this decision will provide long-term benefits to our producer partners and our industry by ensuring U.S. pork products are able to compete fairly in the international marketplace,” said a JBS USA statement.
Ractopamine is used in some countries to raise leaner pigs, but China does not allow its use or tolerate residues in imported meat. The European Union also bans ractopamine.
The growth additive is frequently in the news.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ractopamine, a beta-agonist, to improve the rate at which animals convert to feed to lean meat. Other countries, including Canada and Brazil, have also approved the additive for livestock production, but China, Russia, the European Union, and several other countries continued to question its safety and refuse to accept meat from animals raised on the drug.
In a big win for the United States and Canada, the UN standards-setting Codex Alimentarius Commission, a UN food standards-setting body, voted 69-67 to set the Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) for ractopamine hydrochloride, the veterinary drug used in food animal production.
Animal rights and food safety groups, however, petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to immediately lower the allowed residue limits for ractopamine — the drug used to boost growth and leanness in meat production — and for more study of the drug’s effects on human health and animal welfare.
The petition followed Russia’s adoption of a zero-tolerance policy for ractopamine in imported meat, jeopardizing about $500 million in U.S. exports to the country. Russia then banned U.S. pork and beef exports over ractopamine,
After the sale of Smithfield Foods, the United States’ largest pork producer, to Shuanghui International, China’s largest meat company, new questions are raised about the future of ractopamine, the controversial growth-promoting drug that is widely used in U.S. pork production and long the subject of trade disputes. After converting a third slaughter plant to process only pigs not fed the additive, Smithfield Foods announced it would go 50 percent ractopamine-free
The trade disputes continued after the Smithfield sale. “The United States must do everything it can to defend its rights in both the WTO and CODEX and prevent non-science-based trading practices from other trading partners, including Russia,” Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) said in a letter. “Further, we must demonstrate to Russia that its newfound commitment to WTO membership includes adherence to science-based standards, such as the CODEX MRL for ractopamine.”
China responded to the letter about Russia by saying it would soon require third-party certification confirming that U.S. pork imports are ractopamine-free. Russia responded by banning U.S. turkey exports.
American activists groups — the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Sierra Club — claim after FDA approves 11 new uses for the drug that the agency has not done enough to test the potentially harmful effects of it on people, animals, and the environment.
The so-called “hard Brexit,” without an EU-UK transition agreement, is raised by opponents of the UK’s split with the EU as a food safety problem. As an example, they point to the possibility that U.S. pork imported to the UK may contain Ractopamine once the EU ban on the growth additive goes away when the UK breaks from the EU.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)