Friday, January 27, 2012

Three views of ractopamine in pigs

Helena Bottemiller this week writes a thorough summary of the international trade controversies over U.S. exports of pork from pigs that have been treated with the growth promoter ractopamine hydrochloride.  This animal drug is allowed under U.S. rules, but banned in many other countries, so U.S. trade negotiators have been pressing hard to get other countries to relent and allow small residues of the drug in imported pork.

Bottemiller describes the history of testing by the drug's manufacturer, Elanco, in terms that could leave a reader quite concerned:
The FDA ruled that ractopamine was safe and approved it for pigs in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and turkeys in 2008. As with many drugs, the approval process relied on safety studies conducted by the drug-maker — studies that lie at the heart of the current trade dispute.

Elanco mainly tested animals — mice, rats, monkeys and dogs — to judge how much ractopamine could be safely consumed. Only one human study was used in the safety assessment by Elanco, and among the six healthy young men who participated, one was removed because his heart began racing and pounding abnormally, according to a detailed evaluation of the study by European food safety officials.

When Elanco studied the drug in pigs for its effectiveness, it reported that “no adverse effects were observed for any treatments.” But within a few years of Paylean’s approval, the company received hundreds of reports of sickened pigs from farmers and veterinarians, according to records from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine.

USDA meat inspectors also reported an increase in the number of “downer pigs” — lame animals unable to walk — in slaughter plants. As a result of the high number of adverse reactions, the FDA requested Elanco add a warning label to the drug, and it did so in 2002.

The company also received a warning letter from the FDA that year for failing to disclose all data about the safety and effectiveness of the drug.
Some of the research literature is available on the USDA website, including this 2003 article by Marchant and colleagues, which indicates why there might be concern.
We found that there were differences in 24h behavioral time budgets, with the ractopamine-fed pigs being more active and alert and taking longer to lie down after being disturbed. However, these differences were only apparent during the first 2 weeks. In contrast, ractopamine pigs remained more difficult to handle over the entire 4-week period. At the end of the 4-week period, they also had higher heart rates than control-fed pigs and higher levels of circulating stress hormones.

We conclude therefore, that feeding ractopamine to pigs does affect behavior and physiology. Pigs that are more difficult to move are more likely to be subjected to rough handling and increased stress during transportation, implying reduced welfare, increased workload for the handlers and, potentially, poorer meat quality. However, for this conclusion to be applicable to the finishing pig population in general, other genetic lines should be tested.
I have been spending some time recently thinking about what makes many Wikipedia articles excellent, and also about the limitations of the free encyclopedia approach. Interestingly, the Wikipedia article on ractopamine is highly technical, as if written by an animal science expert, and generally downplays the safety concern. Although the Wikipedia article includes the Bottemiller article as one recent reference, its summary of the animal safety issue seems to contrast both with her article and with the Marchant article cited above. Here is the section in full:
Target animal safety

Ractopamine is safe for finishing pigs heavier than 240 pounds when administered in the diet at concentrations up to 10 ppm and fed for up to 35 days. However, there was an increase in the number of ractopamine hydrochloride-treated animals exhibiting signs of injury during the final drive to slaughter. (FDA)
I suppose the second sentence captures the animal health issues sufficiently? Of course, the great thing about Wikipedia is that articles are constantly changing and commonly improving.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

South Side Chicago

While in Chicago this month for an AAEA-sponsored session of the main annual meeting of economists, I took a long walk through the South Side neighborhoods from 35th Street/Bronzeville to 51st Street, learning especially about food retail access, housing, and other topics. Here are some photographs.

For advance preparation, I read Mari Gallagher's reports on food deserts in Chicago.

My past walks on the same theme include Skid Row, Anacostia, Harlem, Roxbury, and the Hill District.

Is reducing childhood obesity a reasonable goal?

Under the headline "Obama's Government vs. Your Family," John Hinderaker of the conservative blog Powerline this week links to our coverage of the interagency working group that proposed voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children.  Hinderaker is upset that Michelle Obama considers reducing childhood obesity to be a public policy objective.
So the future weight of your minor children is a “goal” of the federal government. Of course, that is just one example out of many. For example, do you think it is a “private family matter” whether you feed your children Cheerios and corn flakes for breakfast? Think again.
I am tempted to speculate that Hinderaker read some parts of my post more closely than others.  He probably best liked the part where I investigated some of the arcane details showing that Cheerios would not meet the long-run guidelines, which suggests that the details of the guidelines might deserve further tweaking.  Perhaps he focused less on some of the other good links in my post, which supported the interagency working group proposal and emphasized that this approach really is moderate, reasonable, and market-oriented.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Food stamp politics

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week responded to GOP presidential candidate New Gingrich's description of President Obama as the "food stamp President."Alan Bjerga and Jennifer Oldham at Bloomberg report:
Those who get the federal assistance “are playing by the rules,” Vilsack, whose department administers food stamps, said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg News. “There are misconceptions about this program and confusion” about recipients caused by negative portrayals by some Obama opponents, he said.

Food-stamp use has increased 46 percent since December 2008, a month before Obama took office and when the economy was shedding jobs. Total spending has more than doubled in four years to an all-time high of $75.3 billion, a level called unsustainable by Republicans including Gingrich, who has labeled Obama “the best food-stamp president in American history.”

Gingrich’s characterization of Obama’s food stamp policies has drawn criticism from groups including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People which issued a statement Jan. 6 calling his comments “inaccurate” and “divisive.”

Gingrich has dismissed the complaints as a smear from “modern liberals” who are “off the deep end.” 
In the article, David Greenberg at Rutgers University expresses doubt that Gingrich's talking point reflects bigotry, but notes, "he is no fool and this is going to be seen through a racial prism."  Later in the Bloomberg article, I comment about the history of bi-partisan agreement over the basic design of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps.  On the same theme, Rogers Smith of the University of Pennsylvania agrees that Gingrich's label is reminiscent of Reagan-era GOP rhetoric about "welfare queens," but unusual for food stamp policy discussions.

U.S. Food Policy earlier covered the unusually shrill anti-food stamp memes that have been circulating on the internet, including videos packed with racial stereotypes.  In response to that earlier post, we received an anonymous comment, stating that the military contractor KROQUE, which was mentioned in the coverage, disavows connection to or responsibility for the videos.

This issue will see renewed attention and discussion after former House Speaker Gingrich yesterday won the South Carolina GOP primary in a dramatic upset over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.