Synthetic growth promoters including hormones, steroids and beta-agonists are prohibited from use in organic farming. While some growth hormones have been banned for use in conventional meat, steroids are still allowed for U.S. production of beef and sheep, and beta-agonists (β adrenoceptor agonists) are allowed for swine, turkeys, and cattle, but are most commonly used in beef and pork production. The use of synthetic growth promoters has remained popular in conventional livestock operations because they increase muscle gain and improve feed efficiency. However, many countries have banned U.S. meat imports because of health concerns with artificial growth promoters in animal tissues.

Artificial growth hormones can cause concern, because once expelled from the animals, the synthetic hormones can make their way into wastewater, and like antibiotics, they are extremely difficult to remove, exposing the natural environment to these growth hormones.

Beta-agonists are more widely used than hormones and are of concern for the health and welfare of animals as well as human health. Ractopamine is a popular drug approved by FDA for use in animal operations as a feed additive that promotes lean muscle growth in the last few months before slaughter. Beta-agonists have been implicated in reduced welfare, linked to increased injury during unloading, increased hoof lesions in pigs, and increased stress response to aggressive handling, especially at higher doses.

Ractopamine is only approved for use by a relatively small number of countries and many countries including China and the EU implement bans. These countries take a precautionary stance, arguing there isn’t enough scientific evidence to prove that it is safe. While some major US pork producers are reducing their use of this drug to meet international standards, this is not a universal requirement. The best way to avoid this drug and other beta-agonists is to choose organic meat since these drugs are prohibited in organic meat production.