Since the beginning of the 21st century, consumers like you and me have become increasingly interested and curious about their diet. They ask more questions, seek more information, and also modify their dietary choices. As a result, the industry has gradually adapted and continues to do so today. It has become more transparent, the availability of organic foods has grown exponentially, and food standards in each country have greatly evolved. However, the presence of antibiotics and growth hormones in our animal agriculture products remains an issue that raises questions among consumers. Many are still unaware that these substances are used, some are misinformed, others do not truly understand the reasons behind their use, and some strive to avoid them at all costs. Feeling a bit lost? No problem, we have delved into the scientific literature on this subject for you.
Why does the industry use antibiotics and growth hormones?
The food industry is evolving so much that even those who have studied it for years discover new facets every day. Let's start from the beginning. What are antibiotics and growth hormones, and why are they used in the meat industry? Antibiotics are substances administered in the meat industry to prevent and treat bacterial infections, prevent bacteria from multiplying, and promote the growth of the animals we consume. They have been used in the meat, poultry, and fish industries for a long time. The curative use of antibiotics is necessary, and when an animal is treated with antibiotics, a withdrawal period is required before it is put back on the market. The major problem in the animal meat industry is the preventive daily use of antibiotics. As for hormones, the story is a little different. In Canada, hormones are only used in beef cattle. Hormones, whether natural or synthetic, stimulate the growth of lean tissues, thus reducing the fat content in the animal. Consumers, therefore, have access to leaner and less expensive meat. It is important to understand that, like us, animals naturally produce hormones. So, it is impossible to consume meat without hormones since the animal in question naturally produces them. However, an animal can be raised without added hormones.
The effects on our health
Now, why is the use of these products so questioned? One of the major concerns of the scientific community is the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. Yes, you read that right, there are now "superbugs" that are transmitted from meat to consumers and that resist the antibiotics that could be administered to us as treatment. But how can this be explained? In fact, the preventive and excessive use of antibiotics in animals, often similar to those used in human medicine, "acclimatizes" bacteria to them. Bacteria, therefore, develop resistance. Animals become carriers, and these resistant bacteria are transmitted in the food chain. It becomes more difficult to treat these infections in humans because the bacterium in question is resistant to the antibiotics used, both in human and animal medicine, to treat it.
Just like antibiotics, some hormones have been associated in the past with health problems in humans. Let's take steroids as an example. In the mid-1950s, numerous cases of feminization occurred in cooks and/or workers in poultry slaughterhouses. This is why hormone-treated chickens are now prohibited. However, these hormones are still allowed in beef production, even though studies have shown that they can have harmful effects on human health. First, researchers have linked the consumption of beef produced with hormone use to certain types of cancer, such as gastrointestinal cancer, breast cancer, and prostate cancer. The use of these hormones also affects the development of sexual organs, leading to early puberty in young girls and fertility disorders.
The use of antibiotics and hormones in animal production is certainly not unanimously accepted on the international food scene. In Europe, for example, the use of growth hormones in beef cattle is prohibited, and since 2006, the European Union has banned the use of antibiotics as additives in animal feed for growth promotion. This can lead us to question these practices permitted in Canada but prohibited in our neighbors across the Atlantic. In fact, whether you are at the supermarket or at your butcher's, the final choice remains yours. However, it is entirely possible to support Quebec producers who do not use antibiotics and growth hormones in their products. That is one of the reasons why Réserve Locale was born, to showcase local producers and their quality products by promoting accessibility.
Glossary of production method claims
- "Raised without the use of antibiotics": From birth to slaughter, the animal in question has not been treated with antibiotics, whether by injection, through feed, water, local application, or injection into the embryo. Additionally, the suckling mother cannot have been treated with antibiotics.
- "Raised without the use of growth hormones": From birth to slaughter, no hormone may have been administered to the animal, regardless of its form and method of administration. Hormones cannot be administered to the suckling mother if they cause an increase in the hormonal levels of the suckled animal.
- "Organic": In addition to several other prohibitions, Canadian organic standards prohibit the preventive use of growth hormones and antibiotics.
Sources used for writing this article:
Health Canada. (2018). About antibiotics. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/antibiotic-antimicrobial-resistance/about-antibiotics.html
Health Canada. (2012). Hormonal growth promoters. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/veterinary-drugs/medicines/medicinal-ingredients/hormonal-growth-promoters.html
World Health Organization. (2017). WHO publishes list of bacteria for which new antibiotics are urgently needed. Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news/item/27-02-2017-who-publishes-list-of-bacteria-for-which-new-antibiotics-are-urgently-needed
MAPAQ. (2020). Usage of antibiotics. Retrieved from https://www.mapaq.gouv.qc.ca/en/Productions/santeanimale/maladies/antibio/Pages/utilisation_antibiotiques.aspx
Lefebvre, C. (2015). Eating meat fed with antibiotics. La Presse. Retrieved from https://plus.lapresse.ca/screens/b18fb41e-ceaf-471b-a677-84193a97d0cd__7C___0.html
Health Canada. (2019). Claims related to production methods for meat, poultry, and fish products. Retrieved from https://inspection.canada.ca/food-label-requirements/labelling-for-industry/claims-and-statements/method-of-production-claims/fra/1525787069148/1525787069834?chap=8
Canadian Organic Trade Association. (n.d.). What is an organic product? Retrieved from https://www.canada-organic.ca/en/what-we-do/organic-101/what-is-organic/
Kumar, Rajan, Divya, & Sasikumar. (2018). International Food Research Journal. Adverse effects on consumer’s health caused by hormones administered in cattle. http://www.ifrj.upm.edu.my/25%20(01)%202018/(1).pdf