Grocery shopping can be a complicated business. We are often bombarded by confusing marketing campaigns. It seems everywhere you turn there is another ‘dangerous’ food you should avoid.
Take hormones, for example. You see chicken, turkey, and dairy products with stickers that say “raised without the use of added hormones” and then we hear cattle ranchers asking us to buy their beef that’s raised WITH hormones! What’s the deal?
Hormones are a natural part of all of us.
Hormones are chemical substances produced in plants and animals to control the activity of certain cells or organs. They are essential for every activity of life: metabolism, growth, reproduction and mood control. ALL animals AND plants have hormones naturally occurring in their systems. Hormones can also be produced synthetically in a laboratory.
No food is hormone-free! The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) does not permit food to be labelled as “hormone-free” because such a label is untruthful. Naturally occurring hormones are present in plants (grains, vegetables and fruit) and meat, poultry and fish products.
Why use hormones in beef production?
Hormones have been safely used in beef cattle production since the 1950s. They are administered by placing a very small, slow-release capsule under the skin of the animal’s ear where it dissolves over a period of months. These hormones enhance the production of naturally-occurring hormones that direct growth towards muscle and away from fat.
Because it takes more energy for cows to make fat than it does to produce muscle, the addition of hormones contributes to more efficient meat production. Beef cattle that are given hormones grow more quickly, make more efficient use of their food and produce leaner meat. In fact, between 1977 and 2007, the use of hormones in cattle resulted in 11% more beef produced from 20% fewer cattle. It also means a lower impact on the environment – and your grocery bill – because by adding hormones, it requires fewer resources to raise that animal.
Organic food, which is grown, processed and packaged in specific ways to meet the Canadian Organic Standards, cannot include added hormones. However, the difference between hormones from conventionally raised beef and organic beef is about one nanogram – a billionth of a gram – or less.
What about other farm animals raised for food?
Growth hormones are not allowed for use in poultry in Canada. Why? Because chicken and turkey farmers already produce chickens and turkeys in a very efficient way without the use of hormones.
Advances in animal production can be credited for this.
In poultry farming, scientists have done a good job of selecting the breeds of birds that grow the fastest. They have figured out the best feeds, and farmers hire animal nutritionists who develop food specifically for their birds.
Poultry farmers are particularly aware of the environmental factors that will slow the growth of their birds, such as changes in air temperature, humidity fluctuations and lighting and they do their best to ensure those are controlled or eliminated. Not only that, but they limit barn access to everyone but family and farm employees to prevent exposure to diseases or stressful situations. Basically, these birds are already growing under peak conditions.
As with poultry, the use of growth hormones in dairy cattle and pork is also illegal in Canada. They simply aren’t necessary because production has been optimized to be as efficient as it can be.
And the labelling rules are clearly spelled out. Any poultry, dairy or pork food item advertising ‘no added hormones’ is required to include a disclaimer informing consumers that all products from that species do not have added hormones. For example: “Like other chickens, this chicken was raised without the use of added hormones.”
Safety comes first
The addition of hormones to beef is not a risk to the health of Canadians. In fact, there are no scientific studies anywhere in the world that indicate eating beef produced with hormones has any negative effects on human health.
The safe use of hormones is carefully monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Food produced in Canada and other countries is regularly and randomly tested to check hormone levels. If specific standards are not met, the food can be removed from the food supply.
Benefitting us all
Hormones make food production more efficient by helping farmers produce more beef with fewer resources. In addition, they make beef more affordable for Canadians from coast to coast. Because hormone use in beef cattle is highly regulated, consumers can be assured that the beef they are purchasing is safe. Ongoing research will continue to generate advancements that result in more efficient – and environmentally friendly – beef production.