Red Meat and Cancer

March 30, 2007 – “Breast Cancer is another reason to limit beef,” reads the headline on an MSNBC story dated March 16, 2007.

Similar headlines were featured in various newspapers in response to the release of a study analysis that suggested a link between red meat consumption and breast cancer. Researchers found no link between overall cancer rates, but when they looked at only those cancers that were dependent on estrogen and progesterone, they found that women who ate one to one and a half servings of red meat a day doubled their risk of developing breast cancer when compared to those who ate three servings or less per week. Most of the news articles advised replacing meat with plant foods in light of the findings.

The researchers offered several possible explanations to explain the link between red meat and cancer: high-heat cooking methods, high fat, and, of course, the universal scapegoat, saturated fat. Conspicuously missing from the list of suspects: the fact that meat producers routinely implant animals with hormones. Since it was only hormone-dependent cancers that showed a relationship to red meat, it seems like a no-brainer to check out that connection before pointing the finger of blame.It is illegal to use hormones in pork or poultry, but cattle can be implanted with natural and synthetic estrogen and progesterone from the time they are weaned until the day they are slaughtered.

The pharmaceutical companies advertise that hormone use will provide a return of five dollars for every dollar spent by promoting faster weight gain on less feed. Dairy cattle are injected with rBGH, a genetically engineered hormone, to boost milk production. (Don’t read the next two sentences if you are squeamish.) This is a question from the Q&A page of the Posilac® (rbST) Web site: “What about the increased “pus” in the milk from cows treated with rbST?” The answer: “These cells are necessary to fight infection, and the increase noted in some POSILAC-treated cows likely reflects the slight increase in mastitis incidence and mammary cells which slough off during infection.” (OK, you can come back now.)

The European Union refused to allow the use of rBGH because of health concerns about breast and prostate cancer. Most other countries have banned its use. The EU has also banned the importation of American beef since 1988 because of concerns that the extra estrogens would cause an increase in breast cancer and that hormone-laden animal waste in the run-off from farms would pollute streams and damage wildlife.Although little research has been done on the effects of hormone use in meat and dairy products, one recent study discovered a correlation between hormones in beef and infertility. The sperm count of a group of young men was found to be inversely related to the amount of beef eaten by their mothers when they were pregnant.

Read about the study from the March 28th Journal of Human Reproduction .
A second article in the same issue, titled Could hormone residues be involved?, brings up some troubling possibilities. The US and Canada based their approval of the use of such hormones primarily on research about the mutagenic activity of the hormones. The author suggests that exposure to hormonally active chemicals could work epigenetically rather than by DNA mutation to cause disruptions at much lower concentrations. Such changes could be inherited by future generations.

The FDA has actively sided with the pharmaceutical industry to prevent label disclosure of hormone use in dairy products. You may have noticed that when a label says “No artificial growth hormones,” it will also say: “FDA states: No significant difference has been shown between milk derived from rbST-treated cows and non-rbST-treated cows.”Label disclosure of hormone use in meat is not required. The FDA has taken the position that labels only have to tell us what we need to know; and they get to decide what that is. It has been estimated that hormones are used in 80% of the beef raised in the US. If the package doesn’t say “no artificial hormones,” you must check with the company to find out if they were used. For now, if you like your position at the top of the food chain but don’t want a side serving of sex hormones, you must look for packages marked “No artificial hormones” or “USDA-certified organic” on beef, lamb, and dairy products. To read more, go to: http://www.sustainabletable.org/issues/hormones/.

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