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Use of Hormones & Antibiotics

The Issue

Increasingly, consumers want to make food choices that are perceived to be more natural.

Whilst there is no scientific evidence to verify this, there is a concern that antibiotic use in the livestock sector contributes to the level of resistance in human medicine. 

Some customers are also concerned that the consumption of meat from cattle treated with Hormonal Growth Promotants (HGPs) may have potential health risks.  

The Facts

  • Antibiotics are a medication that is used to treat or prevent infections caused by bacteria.
  • HGPs are products implanted in cattle that slowly release small amounts of hormones to improve growth rates (by 15-30%), feed efficiency (by 5-15%) and carcase leanness (by 5-8%).  

Hormone Use

  • HGPs are based on naturally occurring male or female growth hormones and stimulate growth and improve feed conversion in cattle to above normal production levels.
  • HGPs have been used by most major beef producing countries around the world (including the US) since the 1950’s with no evidence of any impact upon human health during this time. 
  • While a majority of producers do not use HGPs it is estimated that around 40% of Australia’s beef comes from cattle treated with HGPs. It is up to the individual producer as to whether they use HGPs depending on season, customer and market requirements; and costs versus benefits. The use of HGPs must be declared on the Livestock Production Assurance National Vendor Declaration and Waybill
  • In 2006/07 approximately 7% of Australia’s beef production was directly attributable to the additional carcass weight from HGP use.
  • In that year the national herd of 28 million cattle would have had to have been 30.3 million to produce the same quantity of beef without HGP use.
  • Given improved growth rates and feed efficiency levels, HGP-treated cattle help Australian farmers produce more beef from fewer animals and resources thereby lowering costs of production and beef prices to the consumer as well as improving the environment.  Fewer cattle means less greenhouse gas emissions, manure, water and land requirements.
  • HGP principal use in the grass-fed industry is to increase the rate of weight gain and produce heavier carcasses suitable for the weight and age specifications for high-value markets. Their main benefit in the feedlot industry results from an increased efficiency of feed conversion and the associated reduction in feed costs per unit of weight gain.
  • The human safety and toxicology of HGPs have been extensively assessed by regulatory authorities in each country, in addition to expert scientific committees of the World Health Organisation (WHO). There is also a plethora of published scientific studies relating to the biochemistry and physiology of these compounds. Based on this extensive database, all international bodies and national regulatory agencies, except the European Commission (EC), have concluded that residues of registered HGPs do not pose a threat to consumers when HGPs are used according to Good Veterinary Practice.  Whilst the EC currently bans HGP use, the WHO has determined that the ban is unjustified and not based on any scientific evidence.  

Antibiotics

  • Antibiotic use in the Australian cattle industry is tightly regulated by legislation. Antibiotics must go through a rigorous, extensive and scientifically based evaluation and assessment process by Australian regulatory authorities before they can be registered for use by beef producers. 
  • Strict regulations ensure that antibiotics are used according to label and permit requirements. All antibiotics used in the Australian cattle industry must also be prescribed by and their use overseen by qualified veterinarians.
  • Antibiotic use and resistance in the Australian cattle sector is low when compared to other livestock industries, other countries and human health (with such results also changing little over the last decade).  The difference in antibiotic resistance between Australian extensive and intensive beef production is also negligible.
  • Cattle producers have an incentive to responsibly use antibiotics. Excessive antibiotic use results in resistance and such products becoming ineffective over time.  It also results in the potential loss of international markets given that such markets are highly sensitive to beef residues. With two thirds of Australia’s production exported this is extremely important.
  • The responsible use of antibiotics is evidenced by the results of randomised testing within the Federal Government’s National Residue Survey program which shows that throughout the history of the program, 99.99% of samples tested for antibiotics in cattle are compliant with Australian legislated standards.
  • The cattle industry has instigated a number of proactive measures to demonstrate how it is using antibiotics responsibly and, where possible, to limit their use. For example, the feedlot industry has agreed to develop an antibiotic stewardship program to manage antibiotic use and resistance into the future.  It has also agreed to collate antibiotic use and resistance data to monitor the issue over time.      

Residue

  • Australia's red meat markets demand that products from farms be free of unacceptable chemical residues. Australia's ability to meet these stringent demands underpins our excellent agricultural and food safety reputation.
  • Adherence to withholding periods (WHPs) and export slaughter intervals (ESIs) is the simplest way to minimise the greatest risk of residues. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) updates WHP and ESI species-specific lists on their website regularly, making it easy for producers to comply. It is vital that these are adhered to as they form the foundation of Australia's excellent reputation for meat safety globally.
    • A withholding period (WHP) is the time that must pass between chemical application and human consumption. These are mandatory for the domestic market and are on the label of all registered products. WHPs can apply to veterinary chemicals eg parasite treatments as well as agricultural chemicals eg herbicides.
    • An export slaughter interval (ESI) is the period that must lapse between chemical application to livestock and their slaughter for export.
    • An export grazing interval (EGI) is the minimum time interval between application of a chemical to a crop or pasture that is continually grazed and slaughter.
    • If unacceptable chemical residues are found in animal products, a producer's livelihood and the reputation of the industry is threatened.
    • Carcases may be condemned without payment and the producer could be held responsible for costs imposed on processors and other industry participants. Global markets may be restricted or closed, a devastating result given 66% of our production is exported.
    • The cattle industry has in place a number of programs to manage beef residue risks.  The Livestock Production Assuance Program and the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme are programs which require producers to adhere to strict food safety and product integrity requirements.  Both are underpinned by National Vendor Declarations which are a declaration signed by all cattle producers that their livestock are free from residues.   

The Research

For more information on regulation around HPGs, antibiotics and residue please see these links: