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Here's Why Most Most of the Meat Americans Eat Is Banned in Other Industrialized Countries

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By Martha Rosenberg

Recently, Organic Consumers Association, along with Friends of the Earth and Center for Food Safety filed suit against chicken giant Sanderson Farms for falsely marketing its products as "100% Natural" even though they contain many unnatural and even prohibited substances.

Specifically, Sanderson chicken products tested positive for the antibiotic chloramphenical, banned in food animals, and amoxicillin, not approved for use in poultry production. Sanderson Farms products also tested positive for residues of steroids, hormones, anti-inflammatory drugs—even ketamine, a drug with hallucinogenic effects.


This is far from the first time unlabeled human drugs have been found in U.S. meat. The New York Times reported that most chicken feather-meal samples examined in one study contained Tylenol, one-third contained the antihistamine Benadryl, and samples from China actually contained Prozac. The FDA has caught hatcheries injecting antibiotics directly into chicken eggs. Tyson Foods was caught injecting eggs with the dangerous human antibiotic gentamicin.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has reported the presence of the potentially dangerous herbs fo ti, lobelia, kava kava and black cohosh in the U.S. food supply as well as strong the antihistamine hydroxyzine. Most of the ingredients are from suppliers in China.

"Animal Pharma" still mostly under the radar

Many people have heard of Elanco, Eli Lilly's animal drug division, and Bayer HealthCare Animal Health. But most big Pharma companies, including Pfizer, Merck, Boehringer Ingolheim, Sanofi and Novartis operate similar lucrative animal divisions. Unlike "people" Pharma, Animal Pharma largely exists under the public's radar: drug ads do not appear on TV nor do safety or marketing scandals reach Capitol Hill.

Still, conflicts of interest abound. "No regulation currently exists that would prevent or restrict a veterinarian from owning their own animals and/or feed mill," says the Center for Food Safety. "If a licensed veterinarian also owns a licensed medicated feed mill, they stand to profit by diagnosing a flock or herd and prescribing their own medicated feed blend."

Because the activities of Animal Pharma are so underreported, few Americans realize that most of the meat they eat is banned in other industrialized countries. One example is ractopamine, a controversial growth-promoting asthma-like drug marketed as Optaflexx for cattle, Paylean for pigs, and Topmax for turkeys and banned in the European Union, China and more than 100 other countries. Also used in U.S. meat production is Zilmax, a Merck drug similar to ractopamine that the FDA linked to 285 cattle deaths during six years of administration. Seventy-five animals lost hooves, 94 developed pneumonia and 41 developed bloat in just two years, Reuters reported.

The European Union boycotts the U.S.'s hormone-grown beef. The routinely used synthetic hormones zeranol, trenbolone acetate and melengestrol acetate pose "increased risks of breast cancer and prostate cancer," says the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures. "Consumption of beef derived from Zeranol-implanted cattle may be a risk factor for breast cancer," according to an article in the journal Anticancer Research.

The European Union has also traditionally boycotted U.S. chickens because they are dipped in chlorine baths. In the U.S. it's perfectly legal to 'wash' butchered chicken in strongly chlorinated water, according to a report in the Guardian:

These practices aren't allowed in the EU, and the dominant European view has been that, far from reducing contamination, they could increase it because dirty abattoirs with sloppy standards would rely on it [chlorine] as a decontaminant rather than making sure their basic hygiene protocols were up to scratch.

Other germ-killing or germ-retarding chemicals routinely used in U.S. food production include nitrites and nitrates in processed meat (declared carcinogens by the World Health Organization in 2016), the parasiticide formalin legally used in shrimp production, and carbon monoxide to keep meat looking red in the grocery store no matter how old it really is. Many thought public revulsion at the ammonia puffs used to discourage E. Coli growth in the notorious beef-derived "pink slime" in 2012 forced the product into retirement. But the manufacturer is fighting back aggressively.

Antibiotics—the least of the unlabeled animal drugs

According to the Center for Food Safety, Animal Pharma uses more than 450 animal drugs, drug combinations and other feed additives "to promote growth of the animals and to suppress the negative effects that heavily-concentrated confinement has on farm animals."

The revelations about Sanderson Farms should come as no surprise given that despite new antibiotic regulations rolled out in 2013, and even more recently, antibiotic use in farm operations is on the rise. Sanderson Farms revelations are no surprise.

Last year I asked Senior Staff Scientist at Consumers Union Michael Hansen how the 2013 FDA guidance asking Pharma to voluntarily restrict livestock antibiotics by changing the approved uses language on labels was working out. Dr. Hansen told me "growth production" had been removed from labels but the drugs are still routinely used for the new indication of "disease prevention."

After the guidance was published, a Reuters investigation found Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's Pride, Perdue Farms, George's and Koch Foods using antibiotics "more pervasively than regulators realize." Pilgrim's Pride's feed mill records show the antibiotics bacitracin and monensin are added "to every ration fed to a flock grown early this year." (Pilgrim's Pride threatened legal action against Reuters for its finding.) Also caught red-handed using antibiotics, despite denying it on their website, was Koch Foods, a supplier to Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants. Koch's Chief Finanical Officer, Mark Kaminsky, reportedly said that he regretted the wording on the website.

But antibiotics are the least of the unlabeled drugs and chemicals lurking in meat. According to the Associated Press, U.S. chickens continue to be fed with inorganic arsenic to produce quicker weight gain with less food (the same reason antibiotics are given) despite some public outcry a few years ago. Arsenic is also given to turkeys, hogs and chickens for enhanced color. Such use "contribute[s] to arsenic exposure in the U.S. population," says according to research in Environmental Health Perspectives.

The appealing pink color of farmed salmon is also achieved with the chemicals astaxanthin and canthaxanthin. In the wild, salmon eat crustaceans and algae which make them pink; on farms they are an unappetizing and unmarketable gray.

There are legitimate reasons to use drugs, primarily to treat disease. Cattle host stomach-churning liver flukes, eyeworms, lungworms, stomach worms, thin-necked intestinal worms and whipworms, all of which are treated with parasiticides. Turkeys suffer from aspergillosis (brooder pneumonia), avian influenza, avian leucosis, histomoniasis, coccidiosis, coronavirus, erysipelas, typhoid, fowl cholera, mites, lice, herpes, clostridial dermatitis, cellulitis and more for which they are also treated with unlabeled drugs. (The Federal Register says the anti-coccidial drug halofuginone used in turkeys "is toxic to fish and aquatic life" and "an irritant to eyes and skin." Users should take care to "Keep [it] out of lakes, ponds, and streams.") The endocrine disrupter Bisphenol A (BPA) has even been found in fresh turkey meat.

Food animals are also routinely given antifungal drugs and vaccines. Porcine epidemic diarrhea, which killed millions of animals in recent years, is treated with a vaccine. And a vaccine for the flock-killing bird flu is in the works. In fact, Big Food is working with Big Pharma to replace the widely assailed antibiotics with vaccines.

Drug use in food animals will get worse, not better

There are two reasons drug residues in food animals will soon grow worse, not better. In exchange for China agreeing to accept U.S. beef after a long hiatus, the U.S. agreed to import cooked chickens from China. China's food safety record is abysmal, including rat meat sold as lamb, gutter oil sold as cooking oil, baby formula contaminated with melamine and frequent bird flu epidemics. Globalization dangers already exist with seafood, most of which comes from countries that use chemicals and drugs banned in the U.S.

The second reason is the U.S. meat industry's increasing move toward privatization and corporate self-policing—phasing out U.S. meat inspectors in favor of the "honor system." USDA's "New Poultry Inspection System" (NPIS) shamelessly allows poultry producers to switch to a voluntary program that allows for non-government poultry inspections. Such privatization deals are the wave of the future as federal meat inspectors are ignored and phased out by the government.

After all, we are living with an administration that sees regulations as nothing more than an impediment to Big Ag's cheap meat agenda.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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