30 Days on a Prairie Farm: Hormones

My Generation

Day 7: Why you should worry more about the baked potato than the steak. But really, you don't need to worry about either one.

Published on: November 7, 2012

About a year ago, I stood in the farm office at Larson Farms and listened as Mike Martz explained to a group of Chicago moms how much hormone is actually in a cut of meat. It was fascinating. Their eyes were opened when he told them, "the baked potato sitting next to your steak, which may or may not have come from a steer treated with growth hormone? It has way more hormone in it than the steak."

Some background: Growth promoting hormones have been used in agriculture for more than 50 years. In general, growth hormones allow cattlemen to deliver leaner beef and use fewer acres for grain. According to Kansas State University Extension feedlot specialist Chris Reinhardt, the hormone implants beef producers sometimes use (which are FDA, FAO, WHO and EU approved) contain an estrogenic (female) hormone, an androgenic (male) hormone, or a combination of both. The implants, Reinhardt says, simply increase the amount of nutrient deposition from what the cattle eat, making them more efficient. He estimates that without the use of hormones, beef chain production costs would increase by 7% due to reduced sale weight and higher cost of gain. Beef would cost more at the grocery store, which would cut beef's retail market share by 2%. The loss would result in $40 million losses in retail sales and reduce the nation's cow herd by 5%. Give or take.

"Nothing satisfies like beef." --Dr. Tom Carr, U of I professor emeritus of meat science. Amen.
"Nothing satisfies like beef." --Dr. Tom Carr, U of I professor emeritus of meat science. Amen.

So there's that. But what do hormone implants mean for the meat you eat?

Harlan Ritchie at Michigan State University did a study. Here's what he found, and the study to which Mike Martz referred.

3 oz. steak from hormone-treated steer:  1.9 nanograms* estrogen

3 oz. steak from untreated steer:  1.3 ng estrogen

Milk: 11 ng

Potato: 225 ng

Peas: 340 ng

Ice cream: 520 ng

Cabbage: 2,000 ng

Wheat germ: 3,400 ng

Soybean oil:  168,000 ng estrogen

*one nanogram=one billionth of a gram

 Compare all this to naturally-occurring levels of estrogen in the human body. A non-pregnant adult woman averages 86,000 to 513,000 ng estrogen; pregnant adult woman averages 65-120 million ng; an adult man has 100,000-136,00 ng; a pre-pubescent girl averages 54,000 ng.

This is all to say the human body naturally produces hormones in quantities much greater than could ever be consumed by eating any food. And if the question is whether naturally-occurring hormones are different than synthetic ones, consider this: the hormones in growth promotants, like estrogen, are naturally occurring and are found in all plants and animals.

The upshot? Your average hamburger isn't gonna send girls into puberty sooner.


Editor's note: I spent vast amounts of time looking for a webpage to which I could source the above estrogen stats. It appears the study was conducted in 1986 (pre-Internets) and doesn't exist online. However, if you find it and can send me the link, you win the prize. Except that there is no prize. Only my undying appreciation! But here's the attribution, used widely all across the web: "Adapted from: Hoffman and Evers (1986) Drug Residues in Animals; Scanga et al. (2004) Annual CSU Veterinary Conference 64: 8-13."

Attribution Update: Many thanks to reader Amy Johnson for finding a link to Dr. Harlan Richie's work here.



The archives: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Kickoff: 30 Days on a Prairie Farm

Day 1: Working Kids

Day 2: Biotechnology

Day 3: Harvest Eats

Day 4: Church

Day 5: Biotechnology, Again

Day 6: Long Haul

Day 7: Hormones

Day 8: Weather

Day 9: Milk

Day 10: County Fairs


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  6. Sustainable Farmer says:

    I am a cattle producer and would never consider giving my cattle anything that does not naturally occur in nature. As a result, my cattle get a 30% premium in price and my input costs are lower. I don't buy the "less grain for more meat argument" for hormones. I would suggest folks do more of their own research in the real world and not rely on published "studies" by so called experts who may have never stepped foot on a farm. It is all about genetics and forage quality when one is in the business of raising quality beef.

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  7. Amy Johnson says:

    https://www.msu.edu/~ritchieh/papers/safebeefproduct.html is all I could find.

  8. Lanie says:

    Thanks for the great article. Something I like to bring up during the hormone debate is the use of birth control in young women - which is also a hormone. But no one seems to care about ingesting/releasing that into the environment. Just a thought. But I do have some concerns with growth hormones in cattle especially in heifers - it is known that heifers treated with growth hormones have problems with reproduction. Fertility in rural areas is becoming a noticeable problem - some studies are being done to see what is happening out here. I mean - couldn't there be a correlation between the two? I think it is something to consider.

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    • Lanie, thank you for sharing this. I'd be interested in looking into those studies on fertility in rural areas. Do you have a link or a university/researcher name you could share? I would add that if a heifer is being given growth hormone, she is most likely a market heifer - meaning she'll go into the food supply and will not raise a calf. Normally heifers that are saved back as a replacement heifer (to back into a cow/calf herd and raise calves) are not encouraged to grow faster.

      • Lanie says:

        shoot - it cut off the rest of my comment. As for the research it was something I heard on the radio - I am almost certain it is with University of Missouri. I know they have done previous studies on the subject. Also do you have current research on hormone levels in food. I mean a lot has changed since 1986 in ag production.

      • Lanie says:

        I come from a cattle operation and I do realize the difference from a feeder heifer vs. replacement heifer. However the affects of hormones used for growth and how they affect the heifers reproductive nature is what alarms me. And that these are the heifer we eat...We had a neighbor buy some salebarn heifers for breeding. When they did not breed it was discovered they had been given the implants - the seller did not disclose the info.