An update on beef exports and the hormone dispute

In summary of 2018, the top U.S. beef exports in volume were Japan, South Korea, and Mexico consisting of more than 1.6 billion lbs. Among the 115 different countries the U.S. exports to, beef export volume is 12.3% greater than 2017. Total beef exports have added $317.53 per head to fed slaughter cattle value and international beef sales have been greater in 2018 by 5% versus 2017. This is positive news for beef producers but unfortunately there are several walls that prevent U.S. beef products from reaching their full export potential. Growing middle class countries like China make a prime location for U.S. beef exports. However, beef exported to China has been more minimal than predicted due to restrictions on beef derived from cattle that cannot be implanted with growth promoting hormones. Therefore, innovation to overcome non-scientific trade barriers will be needed because the majority of the U.S.’s fed cattle supply is implanted to improve efficiency of production. Also, Europe has a long-standing non-hormone treated cattle (NHTC) program that has been effective since 1999. Although the U.S. has been able to supply specifically to this program for often at a premium, the duty-free volume is limited to 20,000 mt. and there is a loss of production efficiency. To mitigate the confusion over the concern of utilization of hormones in cattle production, greater consumer trust needs to be established. The use of growth promotant hormones such as, estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, trenbolone and zeranol have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are regularly used in more than 20 countries and have reduced greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, water use, and reactive nitrogen loss of beef production in comparison to beef raised without growth promoting hormones. If consumers demand greater sustainability, growth promoting hormones can enhance production efficiency and can contribute significantly to the goal of producing more food with fewer resources.

The Important Role of Hormones

Estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone hormones are present in plant and animal products (Table 1). These naturally occurring substances are termed “endogenous” hormones. In animals, these hormones play an important role as “messengers” because they travel through the bloodstream to synchronize body function and influence biological action of specific areas such as reproduction, growth, and development.

Estrogenic activity of common plant and animal foods

Hormones such as androgens and estrogens or “exogenous hormones” can be administered to growing cattle to promote growth and synergy with the endogenous hormones. Growth promoting hormones are known to improve feed efficiency, protein deposition, and growth rate of cattle.

The administration process often consists of placing small pellets or “implants” under the skin in the animal’s ear. The implant should be deposited between the skin and the cartilage on the backside of the ear as shown in Figure 1.

Proper Implant Site

The implants are designed to release the hormone compound over time into the bloodstream. Once the animal is at its terminal endpoint and taken to the beef harvest facility, the ear of each animal is discarded. Therefore, there is no chance that an implant could enter the food supply chain.

It is true that beef from implanted cattle contains greater estrogenic activity by 1 ng per 3 oz. serving in comparison to non-implanted beef (3 ng vs. 2 ng, respectively). However, this difference is very minimal compared to the estrogenic activity in many plant products. Consumers should also be aware that when meat is consumed, residues of the natural hormones have a low biological activity because residues are rapidly excreted.

Consumer Beef Marketing

In the retail case, beef cannot be marketed as “hormone-free” because hormones are produced naturally by plants, animals, and humans for proper regulatory function and survivability. Beef can be marketed as “naturally raised” or “raised without hormones” and must abide by the USDA voluntary claim standards “FSIS Labeling Guideline on Documentation Needed to Substantiate Animal Raising Claims for Label Submissions.” Consumers that prefer to purchase naturally raised or Organic beef should be prepared to pay a premium. Beef produced from implanted cattle can provide consumers a more economical and sustainable product that should be recognized as safe and wholesome.

For more information about the use of hormones in beef production, visit the Meat Mythcrushers website at