Alta. survey finds unease with growth hormones

College students conducted the survey in Lethbridge, where residents are very familiar with the cattle industry

In a city that lies at the heart of Canada’s intensive livestock operations, it may not be surprising that most Lethbridge respondents to a survey think farmers and ranchers take care of the environment, use water responsibly and treat livestock humanely.

But there is one thing they don’t like: the use of growth hormones in livestock production. Almost 63 percent of 1,288 people surveyed said they are opposed to growth hormone use in livestock.

The survey, done via telephone interviews, was undertaken earlier this year by Lethbridge College students under the supervision of Faron Ellis, research chair with the Citizen Society Research Lab.

Results showed that the level of objection increases with age.

Seventy-one percent of those aged 45 to 64 and 78 percent of those 65 and older think growth hormones should not be used in livestock production. However, about 62 percent of residents 18 to 29 agree with the practice.

“Older people are much more opposed than younger people. It’s a pure pattern there,” Ellis said in discussing the findings.

“I think the youth are just used to it. It’s not change or new for them. They’ve grown up within an age of supplements. I think they’re just desensitized to it, especially when I see the pattern that pure.”

Results also showed differences along gender lines. About 75 percent of women are opposed to hormone use compared to 51 percent of men.

Politically, NDP voters are the most opposed, at 71 percent, and the majority of United Conservative Party voters (57 percent) and Liberal voters (61 percent) are also opposed. About 55 percent of Alberta Party voters support the use of growth hormones, although that sample size was small, said Ellis.

The survey results to some degree reflect the results of public polling on a wider scale about the issue.

Ellen Goddard, professor and chair in agricultural marketing and business at the University of Alberta, has been involved in consumer surveys about food issues for years.

She has found that consumers are concerned about hormone use in meat animals and are slightly more concerned about that than they are about antibiotic use. The fears relate to the potential for residue in meat they consume and the health effects it might have, even though research indicates no health risk.

“We account for that mostly because the story got away from the industry,” said Goddard in reference to consumer attitudes.

“What happened was, the industry was using it (growth promoting hormones), scientists were testing it, the industry and scientists were talking about how safe and beneficial this might be and the public was not engaged in that conversation. Then if there start to be scare stories, they easily get blown up in the minds of the public because they have no background information to even think critically about the information that may be provided.”

Growth hormones are used in cattle production to speed weight gain and reduce the amount of feed and the time it takes to bring animals to slaughter condition. Studies indicate they increase cattle feed efficiency by five to 20 percent.

The cattle industry has been battling concerns about hormone use through research studies and by comparing hormone levels in various foods.

For example, Alberta Beef Producers materials indicate one serving of cabbage contains the same amount of estrogen as about 1,000 servings of beef that resulted from animals given that hormone for growth enhancement.

In another example, they indicate that an adult female would have to eat the beef from more than 95 cattle to ingest the same amount of estrogen that her body produces daily.

Research also indicates growth hormones are safe for cattle and that the beef they produce is safe to consume. The industry also argues that use of the growth promotants is environmentally friendly because fewer resources — feed, water and fuel — are needed to produce beef.

Goddard said the environmental aspect could be the reason that those 18 to 29 supported the use of growth hormones in the Lethbridge study. That age group may have been more exposed to concerns about the environment and livestock’s role in greenhouse gas production and thus saw hormone use as a positive step.

She also speculated that the younger age group might be more active on social media, and if the livestock industry used that avenue to provide information and comparisons on hormone content in various foods, it might have resonated and led to more positive attitudes from that group.

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