You’ve probably seen the label hormone-free on various packages of beef while perusing the meat aisle. So, if those options are hormone-free as they boast, do artificial growth hormones reside in all of the other beef? It’s a valid question. Oftentimes the labels in this day and age are overwhelming. Gluten-free pineapple? Natural? What does it all mean? I’ve written a separate post about what the labels found on beef may be but I really wanted to dig into the hormone-free label in this blog post to truly give you the lowdown on hormones in beef.
The Beef Life Cycle
In order to understand why hormones can be utilized by sectors of the beef industry we need to first understand where beef comes from. All of the beef you consume comes from an animal that has a beginning – just like we all do.
The Beginnings of Beef
Life for all beef cattle (except for dairy cattle that will transition into this role) will begin on what is called a cow-calf operation. These are oftentimes the smaller ranches you’ll see dotting the sides of the highway. Here a cow (or heifer if she is a first-time mom) will conceive a calf. Ranchers make sure to time the a calf’s birth within a particular season so they can provide adequate care to both the cow and the calf. They also time calving season around meeting demand within their market. After about nine months, a calf will be born. The calf will ideally stay with it’s mother until it is ready to fully transition to grass. On average at this point the calf would be approximately eight months of age and weigh around five hundred pounds.
To the Stocker/Backgrounder
Now once the calf is fully transitioned to grass it will most likely be sold through a local livestock auction to what is known as a “stocker” or “backgrounder.” Time spent here will vary based upon each animal’s growth. While they are at this stage in their life their diet is typically predominantly grass with a little grain. For animals that are entirely grass-fed they won’t have access to grains and will stay with their stocker until they reach market weight. The large majority of cattle in the United States will move onto their next stage of life at the feedlot.
Life In the Feedyard
Feedlots get a bad rap from most people. I get it. They’re oftentimes not the prettiest to the average person, can cause a little dust if not managed correctly and definitely have a noticeable smell. Because even if everything’s managed properly – cattle are animals, and they are messy. But feedlots are pretty amazing when you think about the sheer efficiency they operate in. All while delivering the best care to each animal.
Here cattle are fed a well balanced diet, not just grains. In fact it’s formulated by a professional nutritionist just for livestock into a ration that includes roughage like hay, vitamins and minerals. One of the cool things about life in the feedyard is that it’s incredibly sustainable. There are a lot of food byproducts that we can’t or won’t eat but are still nutritious for cattle. This is because they are ruminants and we have simple stomachs. So this helps smaller amounts go to waste.
Cattle are only here about 120-180 days, which is a relatively small amount of time. While they are here on top of getting access to the food they need they also have plenty of room to rest and socialize. Each animal has about 125-250 square feet to romp and play. There are also pen-riders that check on their health to make sure everyone is comfortable.
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When they reach market weight they will journey to an abattoir (processing plant) and be humanely rendered senseless before they are processed down into all of the cuts of meat you see in the grocery store. This is done by skilled workers who make food safety a priority. At this point beef is also graded, you can read more about that here.
The Lowdown On Hormones in Beef
Now you may be asking, at what point will cattle be exposed to additional hormones? For most people this idea is associated directly with life in the feedyard. However, there are actually a wide variety of hormone implants on the market. They are tailored specifically to work on animals that are of a particular sex, production stage and/or age.
How Are Additional Hormones Delivered to Beef Cattle?
The stereotypical image of a hormone in a large and scary syringe probably comes to mind at this point. However, hormones introduced in beef cattle are simply a small unobtrusive pellet. It is placed right behind the ear. The hormone implant releases small amounts of that hormone over a long period of time. Eventually the pellet dissolves so it never has to be removed.
Are Hormone Implants Safe for Beef Cattle?
Hormone implants have been used safely for over sixty years in the United States. Hormone implants have different hormones present depending on type including an estrogen implant, testosterone implant, progesterone implant or their synthetic counterparts. Several agencies including the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) must approve all hormone implants. They must promote environmental and animal health to be approved to be utilized as a hormone in beef.
Why Are Conventionally Raised Beef Cattle Implanted With Hormones?
A lot of our readers are probably wondering, why are conventionally raised cattle typically implanted with hormones? If you’ve read other blog posts you probably understand that a farm must be sustainable. Farmers and ranchers try their best to use all of their resources effectively. They understand we have limited natural resources. Cattle are typically implanted because it increases their average daily gain 15%-25%. This means each pound of beef you enjoy is produced more efficiently. It uses less water, less land and less feed.
Are there Hormones In My Beef?
As we discussed in our post about Hormones in Milk all animals and plants naturally have hormones in them. So you consume hormones everyday of your life. You don’t just consume hormones in beef. They are necessary for you and all other organisms proper development. But you’re probably thinking about artificially introduced hormones. In truth whether you’re eating beef from an animal that was or was not implanted the levels of estrogen are incredibly similar and negligible. For this demonstration we’ll discuss an estrogen implant. On average a serving of beef (3 oz) from a non-implanted steer may have 1.7 nanograms of estrogen present. A serving of beef from an implanted steer may have 1.9 nanograms of estrogen present.
To give you a visual of hormones in beef if you broke a paperclip up into a billion pieces, each piece would represent one nanogram. So you’re talking about a variation of less than one of a billion pieces of a gram. This is well within the natural fluctuation that animals experience. So you could actually get slightly more hormones in beef from meat from a non-implanted steer.
All of the hormones on the market have a zero-day withdrawal rate which means that it doesn’t matter when the animal is implanted. It’s meat will be safe for us to consume. Because the pellet dissolves and ears are not processed for meat in packing plants we will never come into contact with them.
To Put Hormones in Beef in Perspective
If you’re still thinking .2 nanograms is something to worry about I’d like to share to figures with you. A woman will produce on average 513,000 nanograms of estrogen daily. An average man will produce 136,000 nanograms of estrogen daily. Soy products also have much higher estrogen than you would ever encounter in a serving of beef.
Have any other questions regarding hormones in beef or beef in general? We’d love to hear them!
Thanks for reading!