Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Ractopamine Hydrochloride - the diet wonder drug

For fat pigs.

Any cook or chef worth listening to knows that fat is flavour. You can dress a chicken breast up any way you like, and cook it perfectly - but unless you stuff it with cheese or butter, wrap it in bacon, or find some other way of injecting fat into it, I think you're unlikely to truly enjoy the experience of digesting it. 

That is, of course, unless you have developed a great talent for deluding yourself.

And when you think about it like that, that is, logically, using chicken breast at all is ultimately a pointless exercise. Don't get me started on turkey meat. I imagine that people do eat it for the 'healthiness' of it, but when your idea of healthy eating is ultimately fallacious, I really can't be bothered arguing with this kind of delusion. 
A blatant atrocity committed in the name of 'eating healthy', 
I believe that the need for fat in preparing tasty food is expressed most profoundly in one of my favourite food items, the humble sausage. The problem with using lean meat to make sausages, isn't just that you're minimising the oleogustus, but you'll most likely end up with a dry-as-sawdust tube of protein. 

As it happens, I recently embarked on a session of sausage-making, subsequent to a long hiatus instigated by the reluctant realisation that I was crap at it. My first two attempts were pretty good, but then something went seriously astray and I wasted many hours producing inedible rubbish. I’m sometimes accused of being a sook, usually by the other adult in our household, and while I would argue that is a bald-faced lie on almost all occasions, it was probably fairly close to the mark here. I took my bat and ball and went home, so to speak.

Enter Mr Kenji Lopez-Alt, a bloke who sits alongside Heston as one of my two culinary man-crushes. His recently published book - The Food Lab – explained to me exactly why I was fucking it up so badly. The reason isn't important for this post - my point is that I had the motivation to give it another whirl and I set out to find some fatty pig meat.

slabs of beautiful piggy deliciousness - shoulder and belly
Now, one would think this would be relatively easy, but it has become surprisingly difficult, and I figured it was because pigs are working out a lot more or something dodgy is going on in the form of selective breeding, genetic engineering or steroid abuse. 

The lean shoulder - too many deltoid side raises in the barn?

the belly wasn't too bad, and saved the day
Now the pork I bought was most likely steroid free, so you could have blown me down with a feather when it was suggested, by the internet no less, that pigs are commonly on the juice. 


I’m not shitting you. 

Apparently the pork farmers in America, Canada, Australia and a few others got together and decided that feeding pigs with a beta agonist was a great way of quickly giving the animals muscle growth while reducing fat.

The beta agonist of choice is called Ractopamine hydrochloride, and the brilliantly apt brand name for the product is Paylean® and it will not surprise you to learn it’s marketed by a large pharmaceutical company, namely Eli Lilly, who sell it through their subsidiary Elanco. Elanco, according to their website, "markets a range of well-known products that improve the health, performance and well-being of livestock and companion animals."  

While that is all very nice, if the use of a drug to make your pigs put on muscle at an unnatural rate doesn't concern you, particularly if you're a pig farmer, that there are about 160 countries* that ban the use of it in raising pigs and cattle, should leave you without a shadow of doubt that the practice is highly questionable, if not downright disgraceful.

*I kept seeing this number but didn't actually bother to see if it was accurate. I did notice that Europe, China and Russia were among those that ban it, so let's just say that the number of countries that think it's a bullshit thing to feed our swine friends is 'a lot'. Unfortunately my country is among the immoral pig-haters.

As I mentioned, Ractopamine is a beta agonist, which are "medications that relax muscles of the airways, which widens the airways and results in easier breathing.” Running through the list on wikipedia, I saw a name I recognised from my youth – Clenbuterol. While Clenbuterol is apparently used for conditions such as asthma, I remember it as something body builders injected themselves with to, you guessed it, put on lean muscle. Apparently it is damn effective and is definitely not something you want to have in your system if you plan on competing in the Olympics. Or living to a ripe old age, for that matter. 

Eli Lilly and the pork industry reps that defend the use of Paylean®, appear to base their arguments on: 
  1. Without Paylean®, pigs take longer to get to butchering stage, and this leads to higher costs, more feed and less efficient farming.
  2. There’s no evidence that Paylean® pork will harm humans that eat it.
If you are looking at those two points and think there is one fairly large and obvious topic that is missing, well, congratulations, because you clearly have a sense of morality and a functioning conscience.
A fairly big motivation, and they're not ashamed to admit it
I’m not suggesting that Clenbuterol = Ractopamine, exactly, however if you’re silly enough to inject the former on your quest to be leaner and larger, you’re at a real risk of turning into a very muscular patient at your local emergency ward. 

Similarly, it didn’t take me very long to find anecdotes of farmed pigs, that have been fed Ractopamine, that have some very serious health problems. In fact, a recent paper by Lui et al would suggest that Ractopamine is a full agonist, remarkably similar in structure to methamphetamine, and that the research to date on the safety of eating Paylean® Pork is very flimsy indeed.
Sounds safe, doesn't it?
All this very brief and amateurish research leads me to believe that the whole situation is seriously messed up, and can, in part, be blamed on the human nutrition industry that peddles lies and misinformation about the goodness or otherwise of lard. The other parts of the blame, of course, belonging to the pharmaceutical industry and the pig farmers. Which came first and who is bullshitting who, is probably arguable.
I think they're trying to say that it's all cool because humans are ignorant.
TLDR: the more Paylean you feed your pigs, the better you are at pig farming
Australia’s grocery market has two main players, Coles and Woolworths. Thankfully Coles has used its power and influence to put a stop to their suppliers using Ractopamine in their pigs’ feed. Woolworths, on the other hand, has been eerily quiet on the issue, so one would have to assume they have no problem with its use.  I contacted them for a comment and will publish their response when or if I get it.

So while I initially felt inconvenienced by the fact that all the pork I buy is usually too lean, I now feel pretty shitty for being so blasé about how my pork has been raised. I love pigs, and I don't know what I'd do without their delicious flesh, but even if I didn’t, the practice of abusing these wonderful animals has to stop.


  1. There are several unintended consequences of unnatural low-fat diet recommendations, and the practice of giving odd substances to pigs and bodybuilders is from that row. Usually every unnatural practice has own dangers. Even the use of idiotic Teflon skillets which are very dangerous to overheat resulted from the promoting of no fat cooking. It is a challenge to find a healthy meat in US, especially pork, usually cuts from an upper back are the best bet (Boston butt with a shoulder blade).
    I don't make sausages, but like making patties from ground meat. Turkey patties taste grate due to a lot of added sauteed onion cooked with a lot of butter.

    1. G'day Galina. I saw the light when it comes to cookware (directed to the light by Mr Lopez-Alt) and have, for a while now, use cast iron and stainless steel. The one non-stick pan is for low heat frying of eggs and hopefully I'll get rid of that eventually.

      Have a good one.

  2. Thanks for the tip about Coles. They were selling good quality free range pork supposedly RSPCA approved and sow-stall free, and the price was OK. It's a step forward, good on 'em!


    1. No worries. Woolies said they'd get back to me about a week ago, so I assume that means they have no plans to do the same.

      A bit odd that Coles don't actively promote the fact that they have done so.