Talking Turkey About the Safety of Your Holiday Meals

There's an old watch that I bought who knows how many years ago that I absolutely love. With its chunky, bubble-like crystal and shiny, substantial bezel, it easily spans my entire wrist. The protruding, pea-sized stem is milled, making it easy for even the fumble-fingered to adjust the time. It has a beefy leather band with white stitching, the thickness of which seems more at home on a baseball than a timepiece. This is the Big Ben of wristwear, and it's certainly not for the faint of heart.

There's just one problem. Over the years its ability to keep accurate time has diminished to the point where I face a grim choice between form and function. But I recently found a solution.

You see, I have learned that I can set my watch by the hysterics and apocalyptic pronouncements emanating from the food police. Yes, the Food Fabulists are freaking out again, and this time they want to rain all over your Thanksgiving parade, so to speak.

First up is ractopamine, a feed additive widely used in animal agriculture to increase the leanness of some meats, including turkey. From a nutrition standpoint, most people would agree that this is a good thing. Turkey in particular—protein-dense, low in fat, and high in many key micronutrients—is one of the most healthful foods in the world.

But the alarmists are throwing around unfounded claims about health effects on humans. The ones who aren't trying to scare you off the bird altogether are advising that you open your wallet wider this Thanksgiving to buy organic. (Their attacks on modern food production and the technologies that will be necessary to feed 2 billion additional inhabitants of Earth by 2050 are especially frustrating and short-sighted, but that's a subject for another time.)

As you plan your ideal holiday spread, here's what you need to know when you head to the meat aisle at your local supermarket: The U.S. FDA approved ractopamine for use in animal feed 15 years ago. In that time, there hasn't been a single confirmed instance of adverse health effects in human beings caused by eating meat from animals that were fed ractopamine. More than two dozen countries including Japan, Canada, and Australia have attested to its safety, with agreement among 27 regulatory authorities around the world and backed up by more than 300 studies.

Even the hyper-cautious European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) conceded that ractopamine "is not a direct carcinogen. ... [It] is not mutagenic and is not likely to present a carcinogenic risk to consumers." In terms of other health effects, EFSA said that human studies haven't yet shown a reason to establish an "acceptable daily intake" or "minimal risk levels."

In terms of its safe use in animals, a joint committee between the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization evaluated its safety in 2004, 2006 and 2010 and established global standards for its use.

To learn more about ractopamine, you can go to our Q&A page on the topic. Also, check out this expert perspective.

Environmental Working Group Thanksgiving email

And then there is an over-the-top email from the Environmental Working Group. It ends with a chipper "Happy Holidays!" but is preceded by reams of scary hyperbole and misperception that is better suited for spooky Halloween rhetoric or Grinchy Christmas attitudes, not feelings evoking a warm and peaceful Thanksgiving.

To sum up their missive, basically everything in your Thanksgiving spread is going to kill you, from your turkey to your stuffing, cranberries, potatoes, and many fruits and vegetables generally. They advise choosing (far more expensive) organic alternatives, despite a lack of evidence that organic foods by and large are any safer or more nutritious for you than conventionally grown or produced foods. Oddly, they even link to pages promoting specific name-brand products.

Their email is all over the board, making it a challenge to respond to, but we have many balanced, scientifically sound resources related to animal antibiotics, EWG's "Dirty Dozen" lists (which Politico Pro says have "long been criticized"), EWG's iffy take on food additives, and their gimmicky, factually challenged database of food ingredients.

EWG has also waged a tenacious crusade against BPA, whose uses including lining cans to preserve the freshness, value, and safety of their contents. When I was a kid, we were constantly warned to avoid bulging cans that could be a sign of foods tainted by botulism, but that was before BPA was more widely in use. It's probably no coincidence that I haven't heard such a warning in a long time. We have resources and a Q&A to help you learn more about BPA.

Finally, you might enjoy this video from the American Council on Science and Health, which puts things in better perspective.

So if you're worried about your traditional holiday menu, including foods that are produced conventionally, or the safety of you and your family, I'd offer just two words: gobble, gobble. And Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the IFIC Foundation!

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