International standards set for ractopamine

Jul 13, 2012

After five years of inaction, the United Nation’s standard-setting group for food safety has voted in favor of science. It was a close call, however, and not everyone is happy about it.

During its 35th session, held in Rome from July 2 to July 7, the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) voted on and adopted standards for maximum residue levels (MRLs) of ractopamine in beef and pork. The decision has the potential to settle long-standing trade disagreements with major export markets like China and the European Union (EU). Despite this, controversy still exists regarding ractopamine.

Codex is the United Nation’s and the World Health Organization’s standards setter for food safety. The group has long shied away from setting standards for the controversial feed additive ractopamine which increases lean muscle growth in cattle and pigs when fed in the last weeks before slaughter.

The vote—at 69 to 67— was unusually close for Codex. The group has been inactive on the issue of ractopamine standards for five years. The adopted MRLs for ractopamine are 10 parts per billion (ppb, or micrograms per kilogram) for muscle cuts as well as acceptable daily intake. Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has ractopamine MRLs of 30 ppb for beef muscle and 50 for pork muscle cuts.

Science and trade

The move has been hailed as a big step forward for U.S. meat export as it codifies science-based standards internationally. Both the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) have issued official statements praising the decision.

“It is paramount that science is the foundation for all decisions made in the international community. [T]he Codex Commission proved they are willing to trust science and make decisions based on facts rather than politics,” said NCBA Chief Veterinarian Kathy Simmons.

NPPC President R.C. Hunter had similar words of approval for Codex’ decision.

“NPPC is pleased that the Codex commission finally approved this scientifically proven safe product. The commission, as it should, fulfilled its mandate to base standards and guidelines on science.”

The attention to the science-based nature of the decision is no small matter.

Many countries—most notably China, Taiwan, the EU, and Russia—have banned meat from animals treated with ractopamine for various reasons. The most commonly cited reasons are claims of health issues in people with heart problems and that studies finding ractopamine safe have not sufficiently studied the effects of residues on people with heart problems.

Despite these claims, ractopamine as a livestock feed additive has long and frequently been found to be safe. In clearing various products containing ractopamine for use in the U.S., FDA has conducted numerous studies on the safety of the drug to consumers. The Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives— which comprises scientists from Codex countries including those banning ractopamine—has on three separate occasions found ractopamine residues in the meat of treated livestock to be safe for consumers.

With Codex adopting international standards on ractopamine residues, countries which use ractopamine could file a trade challenge at the World Trade Organization against countries which ban imported meat containing traces of the drug as illegal under trade agreements.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack also commended Codex for its decision.

“Currently, American producers face trade restrictions due to unjustified bans on the use of ractopamine, which has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and used safely in the United States for 12 years as well as 25 other countries. “…Establishment of international standards for veterinary drugs like ractopamine are important since many countries rely on science-based food standards to ensure that the food they are importing is safe. U.S. agricultural exporters benefit and consumers worldwide benefit when countries adopt international standards.”

Global controversy

Not everyone is convinced Codex’ decision is sciencebased or in the best interest of the global consuming public. Some assert the outcome of the vote exactly the opposite of what those like NCBA and NPPC claim it is: a political, rather than sciencebased, decision.

“We are concerned that with this vote Codex is becoming another politicized global body, rather than the science-based consensus body it has managed to be so far,” said Michael Hansen, Ph.D., of Consumers International. Consumers International is a global consumer interest group which claims to represent 220 consumer groups in 110 countries and has non-voting representation in the Codex.

“In the past, Codex has avoided adopting standards where scientists disagree, or where the scientific data is lacking or insufficient. We now see a situation where trade concerns are trumping science. This does not bode well for the credibility of Codex standards in the future,” Hansen commented.

The group’s contention with the decision was that it was based on insufficient data which did not “adequately assess possible effects of residues on people with heart problems.” This has been the primary reason for disregarding previous data sited by the EU.

In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority published a 52-page report on ractopamine’s safety in humans. Though it did not challenge the findings of the then-available data of ractopamine residues as safe in the populations and models studies, it criticized the findings as based on incomplete studies which ignored “subpopulations which may be at higher risk” of cardiovascular concerns.

Following Codex’ decision, several international publications have reported various groups slamming the move. Governing bodies in Taiwan and the EU have stated they don’t plan to change their regulations on ractopamine as a result of Codex’ vote. Taiwanese governmental groups say the standard will be taken “as a reference” but will not force the country’s decision on the matter. — Kerry Halladay, WLJ Editor