No wonder consumers are confused

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My friend Andrew Campbell in Canada recently wrote: “There are hormones in your food! What’s worse, they are in you! Alarmed yet? You shouldn’t be, and I’ll tell you why…”

He was writing about A&W Canda’s new claim that its beef would be hormone-, steroid- and preservative- free, and would contain no added hormones. Andrew said he’s “done with marketing gimmicks and done with A&W Canada.”

All of animal agriculture is tired of the marketing gimmicks. In my opinion, it’s those gimmicks that cause consumers to be fearful, making them believe meat without all the special “free-from” claims is somehow inferior or unsafe.

A new survey reports that consumer confidence in the safety of food and beverages recently reached a five-year low. According to the survey, respondents’ most pressing concerns, in order, were: imported foods, exposure to pesticides on food, exposure to food-borne pathogens like E. coli and salmonella and the use of antibiotics or growth hormones in livestock.

It’s good consumers ranked imported foods first, since much of that food may not meet the same stringent standards placed on U.S.-produced and inspected foods. It makes sense, too, that consumers are concerned about food-borne pathogens, although much of that concern can be minimized or alleviated with proper handling after it is purchased.

Regarding hormones, Andrew has a good response: “First point: You have hormones in you right now, and whether you eat a Teen Burger or not isn’t going to change that. In fact, you may even be taking additional hormones to help keep you from getting pregnant, lessen the effects of menopause, or an incredible host of other concerns and issues. Hormones also are natural in every other living thing, from a soybean plant to a duck. It is why A&W has to promote there are not ‘added’ hormones, and can’t get away with saying hormone-free.”

He continues: “Iowa State University highlighted the ‘estrogenic activity’ of a number of foods (read it here). In 500 grams of beef (or more than an entire pound) not given the added hormone, there are 5 nanograms of estrogen (ng). In an entire pound of beef given that little injection, there are 7 ng. Big difference? Not if you look at the fact your body, very naturally produced 136,000 nanograms of estrogen today, if you are a man. As a woman, you’ll produce 513,000 nanograms per day, and the mood swings that your pregnant friend seems to be feeling could be because of the almost 20 million nanograms she is producing each and every day. And we are bickering over 2? (In case you are curious, peanuts show up on the scale at 100,000 ng, white bread 300,000,ng and tofu at 113 million nanograms for the same 500g…Also, birth control pills contain 20,000 to 50,000 ng). The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations also has a report on hormone use in animal production. It backs up what Iowa State found– that the contribution to my system of a beef animal treated with a hormone relative to what I produce on my own is 0.00025%. And eating at A&W, despite what they want you to believe, can’t even make that zero.”

We’ve already written about Panera’s misleading marketing and most recently, Chipotle’s ambiguous video. We need to continue to share the facts with consumers, encourage people to write letters or emails to these companies explaining why they will no longer frequent their establishments, and do all we can to expose them for what they are: manipulative marketers who play on consumers’ emotions and distort the truth to separate themselves from other food providers. It’s fine if they want to source their food differently - I have no problem with that. But to emploly scare tactics to make consumers uncomfortable and hesitant about their food choices - and to do it on the backs of hard-working farmers - is just unethical and wrong.

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allan Schinckel    
Purdue  |  October, 14, 2013 at 05:40 PM

the comparison of different estrogen molecules with drastically different activity per unit mass is not good science. I have checked with several PhD reproductive physiologists and the inclusion of plant estrogens some which have no activity and in fact bind to receptors and block the impact of natural estrogens. One can not compare the "acitivity " of drastically different molecules with drastically different actions just by their masses as if their activity and actions were the same. If one is going to defend livestock production use good solid science or the creditability of sound science will be lost for a long time. Continued use of poor science is not the answer.

Eileen W    
Pennsylvania  |  October, 16, 2013 at 05:51 PM

The FAO report is from 1982 so now quite dated although interesting as I read and skimmed the first few pages. I wonder if there is not something more current. The two-page fact sheet from Iowa State Extension was very concise in presenting the issues clearly; the best i have seen. The original article brought the scale of hormone use versus naturally occurring background levels into focus. Even just the comparisons among animal products and human levels is convincing that beef is not the hormone laced product that some would prefer to label it. (I'm taking into account another comment on this article about the comparison to 'estrogen' plant levels and no longer considering beef vs. tofu; i would like to learn more about those plant and animal estrogen differences).

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