Hormones and Antibiotics in Animal Production

— Written By Katie Carter
en Español / em Português

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Hormones and antibiotics in our meat products is a hot topic right now, and it’s important to know facts from fiction. This article is going to briefly explain some important things about hormones and antibiotics in animal production that I hope will shed some light on any confusion the public may have.

Let’s start with hormones in chickens. At the grocery store, there are two chicken packages on the shelf with three chicken breasts in each package. Glancing at both packages there does not seem to be a noticeable difference. The breast sizes are the same, color, texture; all look the same. But the prices are much different. Labeling at the grocery store may create confusion regarding the use of hormones in meat production. In fact, it is illegal to give chickens hormones at all! Chickens that are bred and raised for consumption are called broilers. Through many years of selective breeding, we were able to breed chickens that grow fast with little physical activity. Broilers like to eat and sit around, and with little physical activity they grow quickly and are off to market within 4-7 weeks.

Cattle are given hormones, but for reasons that may not be clear to the public. First and foremost, the hormones that are given are naturally accruing hormones already found in the cow’s body. Cattle are given hormones through a very small pellet, a little larger than a grain of rice, injected under the skin on the backside of the ear. When a bull calf is castrated he loses some of his naturally accruing hormones and will then lack in performance. He starts to gain more fat than muscle, which is not what the consumer market wants. The most common hormone that is given is estrogen which is a natural hormone already found in the steer. Not only do the hormones keep the steer performing as it should but it also helps give the beef flavor that we have all become accustomed to. Without the hormones, the meat would taste a little gamier then what the consumers are used to. Many people think that hormones are used for size, but like chickens, after many years of selective breeding, we were able to breed cattle that are large framed and have great muscle structure. It is important to know that when a steer is implanted with the hormones, and it comes time to be shipped off to market the implant has been absorbed and metabolized, and no longer present in the meat. Implants are slow absorbing. It is also extremely important to know that the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) approves and regulates the use of all growth-promoting implants. Cattle are not the only place that hormones have been used. It was used in swine but there was no evidence to prove that the hormones really helped or improved the product. Knowing this, we can see that hormones are not just given to animals. There needs to be a demand and benefit from using hormones.

The chart below shows the amount of the hormone Estrogen in other foods that we consume. It also shows the amount of Estrogen in a steer that has been given hormones and a steer that has not been given hormones.

Image of chart 1

Antibiotics are given to help keep animals healthy. Just like when a person falls ill, they go to the doctor to get medicine to fight off whatever is ailing them. Antibiotics are given not only for the health of the animal but the quality of the meat as well. If an animal is sick it cannot perform, or gain weight as it should and therefore the meat quality goes down. When antibiotics are administered to an animal it an antibiotic that is generally not administered to humans. There are very strict rules about withdrawal times following the administration of an antibiotic before the animal can be processed. The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service conducts a monitoring program to make sure that there are no unsafe residues detected left behind by antibiotics in meat and poultry.

The chart below lists the antibiotics that are used for humans and the antibiotics that are used in animals. The chart is showing that we rarely cross the uses of the same antibiotics for humans and animals.

Image of chart 2