Russian officials recently enacted a law that will ban the imports of meat from the United States. The move was purportedly made due to concerns over the U.S. practice of adding the compound ractopamine – a growth stimulant–to livestock feed in an effort to create leaner, bigger cuts of meat. Russian health officials stated that animals that have been fed ractopamine retain significant levels of it in bodily tissues–levels that can be passed on to consumers who theoretically can experience its effects. Ractopamine is banned in several countries around the globe, including China, Taiwan, and the European Union due to its effects on growth, reproductive function, mood and heart health. Ractopamine is a chemical compound from the beta-agonist family, which, in concentrated amounts, is acknowledged to have adverse side effects such as increased blood pressure and heart rate, possible mutagenic consequences, anxiety and behavioral changes. The United States FDA has approved the use of the drug in livestock feed and limits the amount allowed in animal and human tissues.
The motivation behind the Russian decision regarding ractopamine is a topic of recent debate. There is some speculation that, rather than a true concern for safety, the Russian government may have decided to block imports of U.S. meat in an attempt to bolster the viability of its own meat industry. U.S. officials responded quickly to the news of the ban by sending a request from the United States Department of Agriculture to Russian officials, asking that any decisions in regards to American meat be postponed. Concerns also heightened amid rumors that China may also seek to ban pork that has been fed ractopamine-containing foods.
Ractopamine itself is not just a concern in Russia and China, but also in over eighty other countries world-wide. It is known to increase the instance of problems, from disability to death, in livestock that receive it and its effects on human health are unclear, causing concern for some. The U.S. does not test for the ractopamine levels in meats, so there is no clear understanding as to the amount of the compound Americans may be ingesting on a regular basis.
American politicians have reasoned that the ban, in addition to being protectionist and anti-free trade, could be a passive retaliation for the Magnitsky Act passed in the United States in December 2012. The act, which blocks certain Russian officials from obtaining visas or using the U.S. banking system, was passed in response to Sergei Magnitsky’s death. Magnitsky was a Russian born accountant and auditor who discovered and exposed fraudulent activities on the part of the Russian government. For this, he was imprisoned for nearly a year without trial or visits with his family, purportedly residing in fetid cells with no medical attention, the latter of which is attributed to his death. Sergei Magnitsky’s death caused world-wide outrage and American politicians responded with the Magnitsky bill, supposedly to send a message to the Putin regime that fraud and discrimination would not be tolerated.
Whether or not true health concerns lie at the root of the newly enacted Russian ban on U.S. meat imports remains to be seen. In the meantime, the U.S. might do well to begin examining its use of the agent, given its frosty reception in meat markets around the globe.