Cooking Subversive
Cooking Subversive
“I’ll Have The Poison on the Side Please.” Chemicals in our Food (part 3)

“I’ll Have The Poison on the Side Please.” Chemicals in our Food (part 3)

Steroids, Antibiotics and other Chemicals in Meat and Poultry


This post is part of the Geeking Out series which presents data-driven information on food and farming, safety in the kitchen, practical science for cooks, cooking techniques and processes and other relevant nerdy stuff that every cook should know.  For the next few weeks, we will be covering topics from the chapter, Safety 101. This is the third of a four part series.

Picture this: an expanse of lush green as far as the eye can see where cows graze in idle harmony. Nearby, chickens cheerfully pick at blades of grass and cow dung for their bug buffet, fertilizing their patch of pasture as they break up the bovine manure and deposit a bit of their own little black gold. The contented lowing and clucking of cattle and poultry accompanied by a gentle breeze completes the sensory experience for this bucolic paradise. Hogwash.

This is the sort of fantasy Big Agri wants us to believe when we pick up their neatly-packaged chunks of meat in Styrofoam containers.  And while there are some farms that pasture animals free range like the one above, they are few and far between. Most meat and poultry found in supermarkets never had lifestyles this lavish. Here’s the reality check.

Remember that BigAgri is all about the bottom line, which means maximizing efficiency and lowering costs. That translates to beef manipulation that begins prior to conception with cows treated with hormones that regulate the timing of conception so that calves are born within days of each other. The calves spend the first seven to nine months grazing on grass and then are taken to a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), which can be feedlots or windowless buildings housing hundreds to millions of animals.

Jo Robinson described in a 2008 article from Mother Earth News1:

“Upon arrival at the feedlot, the stressed, thirsty and hungry calves are herded down chutes and subjected to a number of procedures, which can include dehorning, castration, branding and tagging. Then they are dewormed and vaccinated against various diseases. A common practice is to mix antibiotics with the feed, whether the now-stressed animals show signs of illness or not. Tetracycline, an antibiotic important for humans, is one of the most commonly used medications.

Lastly, the calves are implanted with pellets that contain growth-promoting steroid hormones that lose their effectiveness in a matter of months. Many animals are given new implants of higher potency to replace them. The aggressive use of hormone implants can add 110 pounds of lean meat or more to a calf. Every dollar invested in implants returns five to 10 dollars in added gain for each animal in the six to 12 months they spend in the feedlot.”

Meanwhile, the calves are shifted from grass to a high- grain diet to fatten them further.  Remember our earlier discussion on Roundup’s glyphosate being used on GMO produce like corn and soybeans?   GMO crops are principally grown for livestock feed, so everything we said that was bad about Roundup, including glyphosate, will be present in industrialized meat.  Besides GMO crops, animal waste (blood, offal, dead animals) are recycled in a process called rendering and is part of livestock feed. The (barely) good news is, as of 1997, the FDA regulated against feeding cattle euthanized dogs and cats (as well as other mammals) as a preventive measure against mad cow’s disease and other diseases transferred from sick animals. However, the rule doesn’t apply to poultry.  Speaking of which, in a 2012 study on rendered poultry feather meal sold as fertilizers and animal feed, multiple pharmaceuticals were found including Prozac, Benadryl, acetaminophen and personal care products.2 

Grain (not to mention all the other offending ingredients) is not a natural diet for ruminants like cattle, which makes them sick. The stress of being tightly confined in pens hooves-deep in pathogen-rich manure makes them sick.  What to do with sick animals?  Give them antibiotics.  The prevalence of antibiotics in food we consume is partly to blame for the antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that plague us today.  In 2017, the FDA banned the use of antibiotics used purely for growth promotion, but using it for “disease prevention”3 is allowed. Where money is concerned, and that’s $111 billion-strong in 2017, 4 the livestock industry is going to find a way.

There are other chemicals that are routinely part of Big Agri meat and poultry besides those already mentioned.  This is but the tip of the iceberg.  Europe banned US beef in 1989 due to the use of growth hormones and it’s only recently that they’re allowing exports of hormone-free beef.  However, chickens are still banned due to the use of chlorine baths (used for disinfection) which may hide unsanitary practices.

With that said, nothing is written in stone.  In a capitalist economy where profit rules, it’s important to understand how Big Agri can be persuaded to make salutary changes.  It’s rarely because of altruistic reasons.  Consider these recent developments in the porcine world.

Until recently, US pork was banned in China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of pork. Why? 60-80% of US pigs5 are given ractopamine, a feed additive that builds muscle instead of fat, which means bigger pigs, which means extra dollars.  Ractopamine is banned in 160 countries, including in Europe due to concerns over adverse effects in humans.  With the exception of Smithfield which phased out ractopamine in its pig production soon after it was acquired by China’s WH Group in 2013, most hog producers use this drug which “has resulted in more reports of sickened or dead pigs than any other livestock drug on the market.”6  So even when China lost more than half of its favorite meat to the African swine fever of 2018-19 (about a quarter of the world’s pigs), it still refused to import US pork.  But the vast demand for pork that just opened up-- more than double the total US production, has proved too tempting for producers now scrambling to fill it.  Food giant, JBS USA which holds the Swift and Swift Premium brands was first to blink and announced in the latter part of 2019 that it will ban ractopamine in its pork7.  Tyson followed suit with a similar announcement made within weeks.  I thought it interesting the company tried to put an altruistic spin on economic motives with its news release title, “Tyson to Help Meet Growing Demand for U.S. Pork by Prohibiting Ractopamine Use.” But you can read between the lines--- Tyson will ban ractopamine so it can sell to China and make more money. Early in 2020, Spam producer Hormel joined in the fray, announcing it will eliminate ractopamine from their supply chain by April of the year. 

To be continued…
Coming up next in part 4: Sugar Additives and Ultra-Processed Foods   


Interested to learn more? Read my companion posts on Cooking Subversive:

“I’ll Have The Poison on the Side Please” : Chemicals in our Food
part 1: Chemical Fertilizers, Herbicides and Pesticides
part 2: And Then There’s Roundup
I Cook to Reclaim My Health



Feather Meal: A Previously Unrecognized Route for Reentry into the Food Supply of Multiple Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products (PPCPs), by D. C. Love, R. U. Halden, M. F. Davis, et al, Environmental Science & Technology Environ. Sci. Technol. 2012, 46, 7, 3795-3802 Publication Date:March 21, 2012,






Cooking Subversive
Cooking Subversive
Lifestyle Cooking for Health, Environment and the Pursuit of Happiness. Gardening too. Listen to our first post, "Well Hello There! Cooking in a Pandemic Era" for an overview of this podcast.