Ractopamine: It’s What’s for Dinner

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You maybe eating more than just pork chops for dinner. Photo by Penny.

How many of you have meat at least once a day? Bacon or sausage with breakfast? Lunch meat with your lunch? And beef – it’s what’s for dinner in America. On February 11, 2013, Russia banned all U.S. meat (beef, pork, and turkey) and meat products.

Why? Because the U.S. failed to show that these products were free of ractopamine, a growth stimulant. According to Consumer Reports, the European Union, China, and Taiwan also ban ractopamine. So what is this chemical, and why is it bad enough to banned in so many places?

Chemical makeup of ractopamine. Image by: Louisajb

What is Ractopamine?

Ractopamine was first developed as a treatment for asthma, but it was never approved, according to Consumer Reports. Researchers later found that when adding ractopamine to an animal’s feed weeks before slaughter, it could either increase their leanness or increase their weight, depending on the dose. For example, pigs are given 5-20 mg/kg of feed to increase their weight before slaughter or they are given 10-20 mg/kg of feed to increase leanness. Cows are given this drug before slaughtering to achieve the same results as pigs; either to fatten them up or to keep them lean, reports the World Health Organization Food Additive Series document.

According to Consumer Reports, researchers analyzed 240 pork products and found that 20 percent of these products contained ractopamine. The pork had less than five parts per billion; which is below the FDA’s limit of 50 parts per billion. The International limit is 10 parts per billion.

So what effect does ractopamine have on humans? The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) gathered and reviewed information and data on the safety of veterinary drug residue. The document, “Toxicological evaluation of certain veterinary drug residue in food”  included ractopamine as well as other drugs.

Growth Stimulant’s Effects on Humans

In this study, experts reviewed data on the effect of ractopamine on humans. In one study, six healthy (and brave) young men volunteered for a study on how ractopamine affects humans. These men were given five oral doses of 5, 10, 15, 25, and 40 mg of ractopamine with a 48 hour  break between doses. The doses were in accordance with the men’s body weight, thus the doses ranged from 0.063 to 0.590 mg/kg body weight.

Using  echocardiographic methods, measurements for 14 different cardiac events were taken at nine hourly time points in each man. The results of the study found that at doses of 5mg resulted in no cardiovascular response and at 10 mg only minor effects were reported. However, at doses 15, 25, and 40 mg increased heart rate by 20, 30, and 50 beats per min above the control was reported. Cardiac output increased by approximately 35 percent, 55 percent, and 90 percent was also reported.

Electromechanical systole (the beginning of deflections seen on an EEG) was shortened by about 10 percent, 14 percent, and 19 percent, receptively  The systolic blood pressure (measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats) increased as the dosage increased. One man was withdrawn from the study after the 25mg dose resulted in adverse cardiac events. And these were all in healthy men, not men with pre-existing cardiovascular problems.

Long-Term Health Effects

The Committee also researched studies that looked at the long-term effects of the therapeutic use of beta-adrenoceptor agonists. The reported side effects of using this drug includes tachycardia (fast heart rate, over 100 beats per minute), vasodilation (widening of blood vessel , skeletal muscle tremor, nervousness, metabolic disturbances such as hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) and hypokalaemia (lower than normal potassium in the blood.) “These effects are pharmacologically predictable, dose-related and potency related, with cardiovascular effects being the most commonly reported side-effects. Non-pharmacological effects include airway hyper-responsiveness and increased airway inflammation” reports the National Library of Medicine. 

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