In this post I’m discussing the basics of antibiotic usage and added hormones in meat. Pin it here.
Hi. Stacey here. I mean as usual since I’m the only one who writes here, but hi, hello anyway.
ICYMI, I’m pretty pash about agriculture. I don’t know why. I didn’t grow up around it. Maybe that’s why it fascinates me to learn about how food gets from farm to fork. Do you have any idea how exciting it is to pull a beet out of the ground? Did you know celery is actually significantly larger than what you see in the grocery store? Those are just the hearts because they’re easier to transport and display in stores. Did you know tomatoes are canned within 5 hours of being picked?
Disclosures: None. This post wasn’t created in partnership with any product or brand.
You don’t know those things if you don’t visit farms, have conversations with farmers and ranchers and learn about their techniques. Farmers and ranchers are not “out to get you”- they want to be transparent about what they’re doing and why. They’re just… you know, busy on the farm sun up to sun down, 365 days a year, so they’re not on your Instagram feed.
Why I Love Learning About Ag
I love learning about all types of ag. Why? Because I care. More importantly than informing you of how your food is produced, I want to know how my food is produced. Before I’m a dietitian, I’m a consumer. I’m also shopping in stores and reading food labels and seeing headlines. It just happens to be my job to actually look into things and not take them at face value only.
There’s a lot of consumer confusion around meat labeling (read: I watched a very inaccurate IG story from a popular fitness influencer recently). Meat labeling can be inherently difficult to understand, especially if you have no real experience in animal protein agriculture.
There are so many directions we could go in discussing meat labeling, but let’s start by talking about antibiotics and hormones. My purpose in writing is not to persuade you to choose any product over another, but to educate so you can make a decision you feel confident in.
Hormones in Meat
Let’s start with hormones because it’s a little less complicated.
All Living Organisms Have Hormones
All living organisms (or organisms that have lived) have naturally-occurring hormones. Your celery has hormones. Your peas have hormones. Yes, your eggs, chicken, fish and beef have hormones. Btw, YOU have hormones. If you’re taking a birth control pill, you’re taking hormones. If you’re pregnant, you’ve got a lotttt of hormones (and your partner is well aware of every.single.one of them!).
Because all living organisms have naturally-occurring hormones, you’ll find that labels might state “No added hormones” rather than “no hormones,” since it’s not possible for there to be none, as they occur naturally.
Added Hormones Are Illegal to Use in Poultry, Pork, Seafood or Bison
It is illegal to use added hormones in poultry, pork, bison or seafood. If you are spending more money on chicken breast because the tag says “No added hormones”, you just got swindled by marketing. No poultry, pork, bison or seafood sold in the US will ever have added hormones. Period. Even if it’s not stated on the package that there are no added hormones.
Why are hormones used?
Added hormones (USDA info here) may be used in:
but are not necessarily used in all dairy, beef or lamb.
“Added” hormones may also be a misnomer. In some cases, animals are given exogenous hormones, usually to replace lost hormones (like in male cattle that have been castrated, similar to how a woman in menopause might take hormones to reach her previously “normal” hormonal status). In other cases, a pellet may be implanted behind the ear which increases production of the animal’s own growth hormone.
Aside from when hormones are used to replace lost hormones, hormone usage can impact:
- Body composition in the animal – increased muscle mass and decreased fat, a more desirable comp health-wise
- Less use of water and feed to produce the same amount of dairy, beef or lamb
How much does it increase their hormones?
The increase in hormones in meat production is pretty small, but to a producer it adds up.
I don’t have a visual for each of these, but here is one for beef. This is a comparison of nanograms of estrogen in various products:
- 3 oz non-implanted beef = 1.3 nanograms
- 3 oz implanted beef (AKA “added hormones” = 1.9 nanograms
- 3 oz milk = 11 nanograms
- 3 oz peas = 340 nanograms
- 3 oz cabbage = 2,043 nanograms
- Birth control pill = 35,000 nanograms
- 3 oz soybean oil = 170,250 nanograms
- Pregnant woman = 90,000,000 nanograms
Do added hormones cause early puberty?
The most likely cause of early puberty is childhood obesity, which relationship tends to be stronger for girls than for boys (references here, here, here and here… there are many more I could reference).
Added Hormones Conclusion
I think that covers most of our added hormones basics. In my opinion, the impact of added hormones is pretty small. I also wouldn’t necessarily say that just because a product doesn’t have a label indicating it hasn’t had added hormones doesn’t necessarily mean it does have them.
If your preference is to choose a product without added hormones:
- ask your butcher,
- choose a product with a “No added hormones” label, or
- look for the USDA Organic seal
Remember added hormones aren’t allowed in pork, poultry, bison or seafood.
Antibiotics in Meat
Next let’s dive into antibiotics. Antibiotic usage has become a hot button topic because of increased resistant-bacteria worldwide. Unlike added hormones, antibiotic usage is not limited to certain animals.
Why are antibiotics used?
In animal protein agriculture, antibiotics are used to treat or prevent illness. In the past they have also been used to promote growth. The mechanism of how antibiotic use helped animals gain weight is not clearly understood. As of 2017, the FDA rolled out a new ruling to ban antibiotic use for growth-promotion or feed efficiency (also see here and here). Notably, antibiotics may only be used under the direction of a veterinarian.
What’s the problem with antibiotic use? Or is there one?
The concern with antibiotic over-use (both in humans and animals – hold off on that Z-Pak!) is that we have an emergence of antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance worldwide that can impact humans. Resistant bacteria survive antibiotic usage, which becomes a problem for the medical community in treating illness. It impacts every country and is a major talking point from the World Health Organization to the US Centers for Disease Control. Because of this, tighter restraints have been placed on livestock and poultry for medically-important antibiotics.
If an animal has been treated with antibiotics… are antibiotics in your meat?
Just like if you’ve ever had antibiotics, you don’t have antibiotics in your system for life, they clear the animals’ systems as well. There is a very strict withdrawal period, a period of time between when an antibiotic is administered and when the animal may be slaughtered, to ensure no violative residues are present in meat. For any meat entering the US food system, federal law requires a USDA representative must be on site when the animal is killed.
“Antibiotic Free” or “Raised Without Antibiotics”?
Any meat you choose should be free from violative antibiotic residues. Choosing a label that says “no antibiotics added” or “raised without antibiotics” means they have never ever had antibiotics throughout their lifespan, which is also an option for consumers. Either is safe to consume.
My Hope for the Future with Antibiotics
Personally, I hope we can move away from prophylactic use of antibiotics in the United States. Western Europe has made big strides in the last 10 to 20 years to curb this. To use antibiotics prophylactically is to use them to avoid getting illness in cases where it is common, like when animals from multiple farms are moved to one farm (think of your kids going to daycare or school for the first time). Though I understand the why behind it, given the state of antibiotic resistance (see this paper by the National Academy of Medicine) we must be judicious in both humans and animals in the use of antibiotics.
Antibiotic usage in animals has been on the decline in the United States with help from new legislature. Animals that are treated require a withdrawal period before entering the food system. To choose proteins without antibiotic treatment, look for “No antibiotics added” or “Raised without antibiotics” on the label.
So, what should you buy? No added hormones? No antibiotics ever?
It’s truly up to you. Conventionally-raised animal protein products are safe to consume, but if your preference is no added hormones and no antibiotics ever, there are those options for you as well. I would feel confident in either decision.
The idea behind added hormones and antibiotic usage has been a matter of sustainability:
- decreased water and feed to produce the same amount of animal protein,
- and treatment or prevention of sick animals.
Remember if your preference is to choose no added hormone or no antibiotics ever products look for these terms on the label:
- “No added hormones” (not necessary for pork, poultry, bison or seafood)
- “No antibiotics added” or “No antibiotics ever”
- or the USDA Organic seal – added hormones and use of antibiotics aren’t allowed in raising certified USDA organic animal proteins
Again, conventionally-raised are safe to eat and choose. Personally I prefer to purchase my animal proteins from grocers who have reputable sourcing (here in Texas I shop at Central Market most often, then HEB and occasionally Whole Foods; usually I purchase from the fresh butcher area), and I buy both conventional and organic. If you have questions you can always speak with the butcher about how they make their selections and where their food comes from. Buying from farmers markets is also an option. My only concern with farmers markets is I have occasionally seen unsafe food handling practices given the outdoor set-up, but if who you’re buying from has a fridge I would feel more comfortable purchasing there!
We’ve covered a lot of ground, but hopefully this has helped clear some air around meat labeling, antibiotics and hormones!
Pin this article on antibiotics and hormones in meat here.
Did this help answer some of your antibiotics and hormones questions?
What other questions do you have?