China Could Stop the U.S. From Doping Pigs

The biggest consumer of pork is turning to European farmers.
(Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Aug 16, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Bigger pigs usually mean a bigger profit for hog farmers in the United States. But a drug used to help pigs gain muscle mass has made their product unsellable in the world’s biggest market.

China outlaws the use of ractopamine, a beta agonist used by 80 percent of U.S. farmers. As a result, U.S. exports to China are down 40 percent in the first six months of 2015, Bloomberg Business reports, the lowest since 2010.

Using ractopamine can net farmers an additional $2 to $3 per pig, as it reduces the use of regular feed while creating leaner, heavier pigs. The FDA approved the drug’s use in 1999, but Chinese and European officials say not enough testing has been done to warrant such a label. Aside from safety for human consumption, the drug can have adverse effects on the pigs that consume it, including trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk, and even death.

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Although China banned ractopamine in 2011, it recently cracked down on the ban and delisted several U.S. pork plants—including half of Tyson Food’s slaughterhouses—because of positive residue results. The majority of China’s imports will come from Europe.

Industry leaders at the National Pork Board are advising farmers to consider whether using the drug is worth missing out on such a huge market. China is also an attractive trading partner because it purchases pig parts that Americans don’t want, such as ears, feet, and organs.

Pigs raised without the use of ractopamine could also become more popular in the U.S. Although organic farmers don’t use the drug, buying pork with a “natural” label doesn’t offer any guarantee. The USDA approved the first label to designate “ractopamine-free” pigs for an American producer just last week, and they will likely carry a higher price tag as well, according to NPR. If American consumers are willing to pony up more cash for pigs raised on a drug-free diet, other farmers could follow suit—whether or not they’re shipping pork overseas.