The use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDS) has been a hot topic in track and field in recent years. There has been a constant stream of positive drug tests, many involving Olympic medalists and world champions. However, mixed in among those who were caught cheating the system there have also been positive doping tests due to athletes ingesting meat tainted with synthetic hormones. Last year US 800m star Ajee Wilson tested positive for the banned substance zeranol on the day she set a US indoor record. It was later ruled that tainted beef caused the positive test and Wilson was not suspended. It did cost her the American indoor record, in addition to loads of undue stress to prove her innocence and thousands of dollars in legal fees. More recently, Jarrion Lawson, the world silver medalist in the long jump, has been provisionally suspended after testing positive for epitrenbolone, a metabolite of the banned anabolic steroid trenbolone. The outcome of his case is still pending. Both zeranol and trenbolone are synthetic hormones approved by the FDA for use in beef cattle. What does it mean for our health that these substances are showing up in trace amounts in athlete doping tests? Why aren’t these positive tests setting off more alarm bells?
The purpose of this article isn’t to debate doping in track and field. My objective here is to discuss what’s in our meat and why we should be more concerned. Positive doping tests caused by ingesting meat tainted with synthetic hormones simply shouldn’t be occurring. So, exactly what is in the majority of the meat that we consume?
In the US there are six hormones that are FDA approved for use in beef production. Three are natural steroids and three are chemically similar synthetic hormones, the latter including trenbolone acetate and zeranol. Calves implanted with these hormones typically result in a 10-20 % increase in daily growth rate compared to non-implanted calves. The increased feed efficiency also decreases production costs. This is obviously cost beneficial for farmers, but what is the cost to our health? These same substances are banned from use on cattle in the European Union (EU). The EU also boycotts the U.S.'s hormone-grown beef. Despite continued pressure from the US the EU continues to ban US meat stating that their most recent reviews “reaffirmed public health concerns about the large scale use of hormones administered to cattle for growth promoting purposes.” (1)
Popular British chef Jamie Oliver summed it up well when he stated to the Times of London: “We don't have hormones in our meat; that's banned. But not over there. We don't have hundreds of poisons and pesticides that have been proven to be carcinogenic. They do.’"
Admittedly the amount of these hormones that you consume from the beef is very small. However, for a young child who has very low natural hormone levels a small amount can have a very big effect. One major concern is that these hormones may be causing earlier puberty in children. It is interesting to note that in Europe, the average age of puberty is 15-17 years old, while in the US it is between 8-10 years old. It’s my opinion that we don’t yet know the full extent of the effects that consuming meat raised on hormones will have on our health.
In case you’re not buying into my argument so far there are several of other reasons to consider swapping out conventionally raised beef for grass fed organic.
1. The use of antibiotics to promote growth in conventional meat production. The continuous use of low dose antibiotics that permits bacteria to survive and become increasingly drug resistant. In the U.S. (according to CDC data) every year at least 2 million Americans acquire drug-resistant infections, and 23,000 die as a result. Many others die from conditions that were complicated by antibiotic-resistant infections. (2) It’s only predicted to get dramatically worse in coming years if we don’t make some changes.
2. The living conditions of the animals in CAFO’s (Confined Animal Feeding Operations). Thousands of animals live in tight quarters where they often can’t move at all. They often live in their own feces and never see the light of day. Disease spreads easily in these incredibly close quarters, thereby increasing the need for antibiotics.
3. The nutrition content of grass fed beef is superior to that of conventional beef. Grass fed beef:
- Contains 2x as much CLA (Conjugated linoleic acid)
- Contains up to 5x as much Omega-3 fatty acids
- Contains a higher proportion of stearic acid (saturated fat), which does not raise blood cholesterol levels.
- Lower risk of antibiotic-resistant bacteria
We are all responsible for our own health. It’s up to us to ask questions and make informed decisions about what we eat. Sometimes we need a wake up call and I believe that athletes testing positive for ingesting meat treated with synthetic steroids should serve as one. It certainly serves as one for me!
(1)https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R40449.pdf, Congressional Research Service