No such thing as hormone-free beef

Hormones occur naturally in all animals, plants and people, which is why there’s no such thing as “hormone-free beef.” Occasionally I see a sign making that claim at a farmers’ market and I will tell the vendor that it’s giving a wrong message to consumers. Promoting the beef as “no hormone implants used” or “no growth promotants used” or, simply, “organic beef” would be more accurate.

There are, however, both natural and synthetic versions of natural hormones approved by Health Canada for safe use in beef, and some beef farmers choose to use them. It’s not a new practice, having been around since the mid-1950s.

Using hormone implants in cattle (steers) help cattle convert the food they eat into muscle more quickly and easily. This means they will develop more lean meat. In Canada and the U.S., an animal can be given a hormone implant (also called growth promotant) early on. It works via a tiny implant placed under the outer skin of the ear. These are slow-release products that last about 180 days, but are used long before (at least 200 days) an animal heads to market. You could say it’s good for the environment as fewer crops are needed to feed the animal, less manure is produced and also fewer gasses.

Eighteen months ago, A&W made the decision to source their beef products from producers who are not using hormones or steroids. “Beef raised without the use of hormones and steroids” is their advertising slogan and it has driven up sales at A&W – up 10 percent in a single year. The fast-food chain has been able to open 30 new stores across Canada. One opened in Renfrew last December.

I checked out the one in Renfrew and was surprised by all the propaganda on the wall as you enter. The order counter is confusing – so much stuff there about hormones and steroids. But guess what? They don’t promote their beef as “hormone-free.” I would certainly stir up a fuss if they did. They also don’t advertise their beef as “Canadian beef” because most of it comes from Montana and Australia.

A&W certainly overuses the words “hormones” and “steroids.” Those two words conjure up a lot of concern for people. Are they really concerned about healthier eating, or by their bottom line – profits? What’s going on?

No health risk

Canada’s Beef Cattle Research Council (BCRC) has collected some interesting stats on the estrogen level in beef. A 75-gram serving of beef from cattle treated with hormone implants contains two nanograms (ng ~ one billionth of a gram) of estrogen.

“A person would need to eat 3,000,000 hamburgers made with beef from implanted cattle to get as much estrogen as the average adult woman produces every day, or 50,000 hamburgers to get as much estrogen as the average adult man produces every day,” says BCRC’s science director, Dr. Reynold Bergen.

“Beef is a really excellent source of protein, zinc, iron and a lot of other essential nutrients. It’s a really poor source of hormones.”

Considering there are about 45,000 ng of estrogen in 75 grams of white bread, the bun probably has more estrogen than the beef!

If you need an explanation to go with the stats, the short of it is that cattle, alongside people and all other animals and plants, naturally produce hormones that are vital to growth, development and health. That’s why meat and plants can never be hormone-free.

Some of those natural hormones are steroid hormones, which are nothing more than a class of hormones that have the distinct four-ring nuclei known as a steroid nucleus. The word “steroid” comes from cholesterol because the hormones are derived from cholesterol and transported in the bloodstream to do their work in other parts of the body.

Promoting beef as raised without the added use of hormones and steroids seems rather redundant as far as beef production goes, Bergen says.

The Canadian Animal Health Institute reports that steroid hormones have a long safety record without incident for cattle and consumers dating back to their introduction in Canada in the 1960s and 1950s in the U.S. They are also approved for use in Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, Chile and another 24 countries. The World Health Organization, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the European Community Scientific Committee and the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives agree that hormones used in beef cattle production don’t pose a health risk to humans. 


  • Meindert VanderGalien

    Meindert was born in The Netherlands in 1949. The family immigrated to Canada (The Ottawa Valley) in 1953. He’s a life-long cattle farmer, enjoys traveling, reading, writing, gardening, bush work in the winter cutting firewood and country life. He’s been a columnist since 1987 writing for many newspapers and is currently the bulletin editor at Hebron CRC in Renfrew, where he is a faithful member.

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