Is Canadian Beef Hormone & Antibiotic Free?

Surprisingly, no. Or maybe this is not so surprising.   With the development in technologies and research and multiple ads from A&W promoting steroid and hormone free Teen Burgers, you would think it’s common place to have au natural beef.

Firstly, it’s important to remember that there is no such thing as hormone-free beef.  Hormones are a naturally occurring substance that all animals and mammals produce.  Each beef producer has the option to decide to use additional hormones in raising cattle.  It’s not as economical to go without them, which means you and I pay for their product.  If a beef producer does decide to use hormones, there are strict federal and provincial inspections that test for residual levels of antibiotics and hormones.  If the animal does not pass this test, it does enter the food processing step.

The truth is, Health Canada has approved three natural hormones and three synthetic hormones for use in cattle in Canada.  The reality is as the demand for food increases globally, we need a way to produce higher quality protein quickly and efficiently.  Thus, we are using both hormones (such as estrogen and testosterone) and antibiotics in feed to allow us to produce lean livestock that are not being impacted by illnesses as much as they once were.

Antibiotics are used in cattle for two reasons:

  1. When the animal is sick (usually administered via injections).
  2. To help their gut maximize the nutrients they`re eating to produce a leaner, higher quality product (usually via their feed).

It only makes sense that our growing population and rising incomes require new innovations to produce more food efficiently, but at what cost?

The big concern is that using antibiotics in livestock feed results in bacteria that become resistant to antibiotic treatments.  Most industry leaders will say that the research is inconclusive and there is no good evidence to confirm or deny the effect on human health.  But there is research that shows that intensive farming practices have been associated with antimicrobial resistance in humans, animals, and meat (e.g. H5N1).  It also contributes to water and soil pollution, loss of biodiversity, and decline of meat nutritional quality.

So do the long-term consequences outweigh the potential benefits?

Canada does not fall into the top five countries with the largest antimicrobial consumption, but it also does not have any formal national restrictions on antimicrobial use for the purposes of growth promotion.  We do have some limitations and guidelines around it, but it’s up to individuals and industries to voluntarily control antibiotic use for growth.  Some European countries banned the use of antibiotics in 1986 due to research they found that linked antibiotic use and drug resistant bacteria in humans.  There are alternatives out there to antibiotics: giving animals vaccines to help them fight off specific diseases and prebiotics or probiotics (or both), as well as promote the growth of good bacteria in the gut.  They are even considering diet formulation and ingredient selection, focusing on the cereal and protein types and levels.  Who would have thought that controlling the diet could affect the quality of meat that was produced? Shocker.

As health professionals, it’s a major red flag to us that the beef (and pork and chicken) industries are often more focused on profit than our health. New technologies are introduced way before the health impact is appropriately assessed.

We aren’t blaming the farmers or the industry.  We are just concerned and want to open the discussion to figure out strategies to help meet our demand for safe food production and treatment processes with health as the focus instead of profit.