By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - Food safety and animal welfare groups petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Thursday seeking limits on an animal feed additive that is the subject of concerns about human and animal health.
Russia said earlier this month that it was requiring meat it imports to be tested and certified free of the feed additive ractopamine, a move jeopardizing the more than $500 million a year in exports of U.S. beef and pork to that country.
U.S. trade authorities have taken a stand against Russia's sudden decision to require that meat imports be documented as free of ractopamine and have urged Russia to suspend such measures.
Russia has denied that its action on meat imports was in response to the U.S. Senate including a measure to "name and shame" human rights violators as part of a bill expanding trade with Russia.
Ractopamine is fed to animals to accelerate growth and make their meat leaner, but countries such as China have banned its use amid concerns the additive may be harmful to the animals and that traces of the drug could persist in meat products.
In their petition to the FDA, the Center for Food Safety and the Animal Legal Defense Fund called for an immediate reduction in the allowable levels of ractopamine and asked FDA to study the long-term effect of human consumption and the impacts on animals associated with ractopamine.
"FDA's approval for ractopamine relied primarily on safety studies conducted by the drug-maker, Elanco," the groups said in a statement. "A review of available evidence collected from FDA and the European Food Safety Authority calls FDA's approvals into question."
The groups said that ractopamine is fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of U.S. pigs, and has resulted in more reports of sickened or dead pigs than any other livestock drug on the market. Ractopamine effects may include toxicity and other exposure risks, such as behavioral changes and cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, reproductive, and endocrine problems, the groups said.
About 160 countries ban or restrict ractopamine, including all the nations of the European Union, China, Taiwan, and Russia, the groups said.
FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess said the agency had extensively evaluated ractopamine before approval and "continues to monitor the safety and effectiveness of animal drugs like ractopamine" after they receive FDA approval.
"Twenty-six other countries have also approved ractopamine," Burgess said. All of these countries ... have concluded that food derived from animals treated with ractopamine is safe for humans to eat."
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer and Tim Dobbyn)