Last week in Rome, the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopted maximum residue level (MRL) standards for ractopamine hydrochloride, a feed ingredient used to promote leanness in pork and beef, on a close 69 to 67 vote.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ractopamine as a safe feed additive 12 years ago, but the lack of international MRL has caused some confusion in international trade.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, better known as Codex, was established by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization in 1963 to set food standards and codes of practice that contribute to the safety of food trade.  Codex has approximately 185 countries plus the EU as members.  With 136 members voting, about 50 members could have voted to increase the majority or voted to defeat the proposal.  Opposition was concentrated in the EU, but also included China, Taiwan, India, Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Russia.

Science was not an issue.  In addition to the U.S., regulators in 25 other countries have approved the use of ractopamine including Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea and other countries throughout the world except Europe.  The human safety of meat products derived from pigs and cattle fed ractopamine had been confirmed by the Joint FAO/OIE Expert Committee on Food Additives, including scientists from the EU, in 2004, 2006 and 2010.  The MRLs are 10 ppb in pork and beef meat, 40 ppb in livers and 90 ppb in kidneys.

According to Elanco Animal Health, a manufacturer of commercial products containing ractopamine, “ractopamine is a feed ingredient that directs nutrients from fat to lean protein, helping increase the yield of lean meat from pigs and cattle. It is a synthetic organic compound, not an antibiotic nor a steroid hormone.” Its use increases average daily gain and improves feed efficiency.  Producing more with less is critical for sustainable production.

Ractopamine residues are already an issue in trade between Taiwan and the U.S.  Taiwan has had an import ban on pork and beef with any residue, but is in the process of conditionally reversing the ban on beef imports with a residue, but excluding import of beef organs.   Taiwan’s legislature plans to vote on the issue in late July.  There are no plans for now to remove the ban on imports of pork with residues, even though under the Codex standards beef and pork should be treated the same.  Most of Taiwan’s pork consumption comes from domestic production, but only a small amount of beef is produced locally.  Also, 10 times more pork is consumed annually than beef.  Meat trade problems have spilled over into other trade relations between the countries.  It is in Taiwan’s interest to find a solution, but the concerns of local pork producers must be addressed.