Avoiding Hormones in Meat and Poultry?

I’m trying to feed my family healthy foods but can’t afford to buy organically-raised chickens and beef to avoid the hormones and antibiotics in meat, eggs and dairy products. I really can’t give them vegetarian foods at every meal. Any suggestions?

– October 31, 2006

I’m glad you asked this question because it gives me a chance to set the record straight on use of hormones in commercially raised animals. This is a legitimate concern because hormone residues in food can increase the risk of breast cancer and other reproductive system cancers among women and may promote development of prostate cancer in men.

Some people think that all commercially raised animals – cattle, hogs, sheep, and poultry – are fed hormones as growth promoters. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not permit the use of hormones in raising hogs or chickens, turkeys and other fowl. That is why the USDA does not allow the use of the term "no hormones added" on labels of pork or poultry products unless it is followed by a statement explaining that "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."

Hormones are still used as growth promoters in cattle and sheep. It’s estimated that two-thirds of the cattle raised in the U.S. are given hormones (usually testosterone or estrogens) to boost growth. Producers of beef and lamb may use the term "no hormones administered" on labels after satisfying the USDA that hormones were not used in raising the animals. If you eat beef or lamb, I urge you to look for such products.

Buying hormone-free meat and dairy products can be expensive. As a less costly option, try to minimize your family’s consumption of the conventional products, substituting other meats (pork or venison for example) and meat alternatives such as soy foods.

The USDA does allow farmers to use antibiotics to prevent or treat diseases in all farmed animals, although the drugs must be withheld for a period of time prior to slaughter so that any residues fall below federal limits. Even so, I believe that this practice is ill-advised since it contributes to the escalating problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria throughout the world. The words "no antibiotics added" on meat or poultry products indicate that the producer has satisfied the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service that the animals were raised without antibiotics.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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