Despite many people in the UK switching to vegetarian or vegan diets in recent years, the UK still consumes huge quantities of meat every year.
In fact, the average amount of meat eaten per person in the UK is almost double the world average (source).
Meat has become cheaper, so many of us are buying larger quantities of meat to feed ourselves and our families for less.
But our growing appetite for cheaper meat both here in the UK and globally may potentially be damaging our health.
Why Are Hormones Added to Meat?
Hormones, both natural and synthetic, are added to livestock to increase and speed up the growth of animals. Adding hormones also produces leaner animals that convert the food they eat into muscle more efficiently.
This in turn helps to reduce the carbon footprint of meat production, and reduces the cost too.
What Are the Potential Risks?
Sex hormones (such as androgens and oestrogens) are amongst the hormones that are often administered to cattle, and these hormones have been linked to early onset of puberty and other reproductive problems in humans.
Those strongly opposed to the use of hormones in meat are also concerned about the increased risk of diseases such as cancer and developmental problems in children, although more research is needed to see if there really is a risk.
Whether the risks are real or not, it seems that many of us here in the UK would rather not take a chance with our health, and a recent UK survey found that “80% of respondents said that they were not at all comfortable with growth hormones in beef production” (source).
Is Meat Hormone-Free in the UK?
Meat produced in the UK is strictly regulated and shouldn’t contain any growth hormones.
Government guidelines state that “Due to concerns about the potential risk to humans, the use of hormonal growth promoters for livestock is banned in the UK.” (source).
Our homegrown meat might not contain growth hormones, but 30% of our meat is imported.
Some of our imported meat is from within the European Union (EU), and shouldn’t contain growth hormones thanks to a European Commission directive which banned the use of hormones in meat production in the 1980s.
Imported meat from countries outside of the EU, such as Brazil, Argentina and Australia are much more likely to contain growth hormones—around 40% of Australian cattle are treated with growth hormones banned by the EU (source).
However, it is illegal to import meat from animals with detectable levels of hormonal residues in the EU.
This means that no meat sold in the UK should come from animals given artificial hormones, at least while the country remains in the EU.
There are concerns that food standards will be lowered once the UK leaves the EU and trade agreements with countries that allow hormone-treated meat change.
Some UK farmers may then argue a case for using hormones in UK grown beef if regulations are relaxed.
How Can I Buy Hormone-Free Meat in the UK?
All meat produced in the UK is currently free from growth-promoting hormones. According to Love British Food, “all beef labelled ‘British’ must come from animals born, reared and slaughtered within the UK” (source).
Although it’s currently illegal to import hormone-treated meat, there’s a small chance that some imported meat may have been raised using artificial hormones.
If you’re buying meat at a supermarket look carefully at the labels to check it really is British, and ideally look for a quality mark too.
Organic meat is also becoming increasingly popular here in the UK, with the organic food industry now worth over £2 billion.
Organic meat is unlikely to be any safer than non-organic meat whilst EU regulations remain in place to ban growth hormones, but there are other benefits to organic meat such as improved animal welfare.
If the UK does relax the current regulations on the import of meat post-Brexit, organic meat might become the safest option for consumers.