A Healthier You With Safer Foods
Pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics in our food supply have raised concerns. Better methods of testing enable scientists to keep track of these various chemicals in food and our bodies. They are present in tiny amounts, but the mere fact they’re there worries people. Many kinds of lab-synthesized chemicals are used in food production today, and many of them might be harmful for people in high concentrations, or even in lower amounts if exposure is over a long period.
More people are coming to recognize that there are a lot of chemicals in their food. All of these substances have passed safety tests, but most of these tests were carried out or funded by the food companies.
Hormones in Livestock
Hormones are given to young animals to make them gain weight more quickly, resulting in more meat from the animal and a bigger profit. Other hormones are given to cows to increase their milk production. These hormones, mostly estrogen and testosterone, have been used by meat and dairy producers for decades. A pellet of hormones is placed inside a young cow’s ear and slowly releases them over the cow’s lifetime.
Early concerns were raised about a synthetic estrogen called diethylstilbestrol, or DES. It was used almost universally in beef cattle in the 50s and 60s, and was additionally used as a preventative medication to help pregnant women avoid miscarriages. When it was found that daughters of women who were treated with DES experienced a high incidence of vaginal cancer, DES was banned from both medicine and agriculture.
Breast cancer risk also increases with greater exposure to estrogen, leading to more questions about its safety in agricultural use.
Another hormone, used to stimulate milk production in dairy cows, is recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). The rBGH itself is not thought to be dangerous, but it may have the effect of increasing other chemicals in the body that may be cancer causing. There is no conclusive evidence.
Research shows that these hormones do find their way into milk and beef, in concentrations at the high end of the normal range. As to whether this increases the risk of cancer in humans, studies funded by industry tend not to show such a risk, but some independent research indicates a possibility of one.
The puberty age of American children has fallen, and hormones in meat have been suspected as a factor. Some experts have suggested other causes.
The effects of hormones in food are difficult to determine, since hormones also occur naturally in both the food and people’s bodies. The amount of estrogen you would get from eating meat is much smaller than the amount your body makes in a day. But even small amounts could affect some bodily functions.
The European Union has banned hormones in beef. Bans on rBGH are in effect in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the EU, and Japan.
Pesticides on Produce
The EPA puts a limit on the amount of pesticide residue that can be left on food, depending on the degree of toxicity of the particular pesticide, how frequently people eat the food, and other factors. As of 1996, about 9700 different pesticides were in use, and the EPA has issued each of them a number known as a “tolerance.”
In making sure that the pesticide levels don’t go over the tolerances, the EPA, the FDA, and the USDA each have a job. When the United States government tested produce in 1999, 40% of it had some residue from pesticides. Of domestic produce tested, approximately 1% exceeded the tolerances. About 3% of imported produce was in violation.
Critics point out that all the produce sold in the U.S. cannot be tested, and even if the numbers are correct, 1% of all the produce grown in the United States is quite a bit. Even though pesticide tolerances are thought safe, the compounds are extremely toxic because they’re designed to be, and their effects on people haven’t been investigated. Also, any possible effects of different pesticides in combination are not known. Some foods, like breakfast cereal, can contain residues from dozens of different pesticides.
The Environmental Working Group looked at data from the FDA and found that the following produce has the most pesticide residue:
- Imported Grapes
- Sweet Bell Peppers
The lowest amounts of pesticide were found on the following:
- Frozen sweet corn
- Frozen peas
To balance safety and cost, you can buy conventional produce from the low-residue list, but purchase organic items in place of those on the high-residue list. To help minimize both pesticides and bacteria, wash produce thoroughly. Peeling can help reduce both bacteria and pesticides, but also takes away part of the nutritional value of produce.
Antibiotics in Livestock
Livestock are given a low dose of antibiotics each day, but it isn’t to protect them from illness. The antibiotics cause them to gain more weight. Scientists and doctors worry that agriculture, in this way, contributes to the development of strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.
- A 2001 study found that 84% of the Salmonella in ground beef had resistance to certain antibiotics.
- Some people who caught resistant Salmonella appeared to get it from eating pork that had been fed ciprofloxacin, in a 2002 study.
- Eleven thousand people contracted antibiotic-resistant intestinal infections in 1999 from antibiotic-fed chicken, according to an FDA estimate.
A number of major fast-food restaurants no longer buy chicken raised with ciprofloxacin or other antibiotics. You have no straightforward way of knowing whether meat for sale was raised with antibiotics, because labeling meat with this information is not legally required. You could avoid antibiotics by buying organic meat, or by buying directly from the farmer and asking about it.
Buying Local or Organic Also Reduces Pesticides
Buying food at the local farmers’ market provides you fresher food while reducing the energy consumption, pollution, and greenhouse gases which result from long-distance hauling of food. As defined in USDA regulations, organic produce is not treated with conventional pesticides and is also planted in soil that is free or nearly free of them.
Organic livestock must meet these requirements:
- They must be fed only organic, vegetarian feed, not conventional feed made partly of other slaughtered animals.
- They cannot be raised with hormones or antibiotics.
- The meat must not be irradiated.
- The animals must be allowed outside and allowed to exercise.
The USDA has authority to inspect farming operations and believes nearly all organic farmers do everything they are supposed to do.
Organic food almost always costs more than conventional food. Is it worth the extra cost? Some research seems to indicate that organic foods sometimes contain more nutrients. And, while not 100% sustainable, organic practices are generally better for the environment. Every dollar spent and every organic product purchased helps effect positive change for the future.