Effects of the illegal use of pharmaceutical products in animal production on human health

The use of drugs/pharmaceuticals in cattle rearing is the object of a recent study, carried out by two researchers from the Centro de Estudos Farmacêuticos, Laboratório de Bromatologia, Hidrologia e Nutrição (Pharmaceutical Study Centre, Bromatology, Hydrology and Nutrition Laboratory) at the Pharmacy Faculty of Coimbra University. The consequences for consumers are, from a public health standpoint, the most significant conclusions to take from an exhaustive work of literary revision in these matters, started in 2000.

The fat content contained in the meat has been a concern for consumers, for reasons of health and diet, who consider it an unnecessary nutrient, or rather, best avoided. For this reason producers attempt to improve the return on their activities by producing more and better lean meat, and in the shortest possible space of time. In this context, the quantity of drugs/ pharmaceuticals used to promote animal growth has been increasing exponentially, especially connected to forms of intensive methods of farming, which has meant an increase in the availability of foods, but in the meanwhile it has also meant the presence of the residues of these products in not insignificant levels in meat.

The researchers Fernando Ramos and Maria Irene Noronha da Silveira have dedicated themselves to the study of the use of a group of pharmaceuticals known as andrenergic agonists b2. Part of the work of the authors – published in the Revista Portuguesa de Ciências Veterinárias (Portuguese Veterinary Science Magazine) in the Summer of 2002 – concentrates on the use of those substances in the average daily weight increase of chickens, swine, sheep and bovines, specifically the increase in muscle mass and the decrease of body fat. In fact, the andrenergic agonists b2 facilitate the production of leaner meat, but not without consequences, be it at a zootechny level, be it at levels of toxins for consumers. There have already been three cases of poisoning of groups of people in Portugal, between 1998 and 2001, and similar situations occurred in Spain, France and Italy in the last decade.

Of this group of pharmaceuticals, only one is authorised for therapeutic ends in veterinary medicine. Its use is prohibited in zootechny. The proliferation of the illegal use of veterinary medicines in general, and andrenergic agonists b2 in particular, raises concerns regarding toxicity, especially for consumers but also for cattle-feeders. The danger of toxicity in the animal can be controlled, as long as good veterinary and agricultural practice is maintained; regarding the environment, these products do not present eco-toxicity, as their elimination in faeces has no bad effects on the quality of soil or water.
Regarding the cattle-feeder, people who suffer from illnesses related with the cardio-respiratory system, like asthmatics, are advised not to work in this area. If norms of security and hygiene at work are not respected there is also the danger of dermatological and pulmonary problems.

With regard to the consumer, the main toxic effects of the pharmaceuticals are a reflection of the exaggerated pharmacological responses due to the administration of large doses , that leave residues in the edible tissue of meat-producing animals. The monitoring of these parameters is particularly important taking into account the risk-populations that are made up of individuals that suffer from isquemic cardiopathy, high blood pressure and/or those who have hydro-electrolytic problems. The problem extends to those who need to take diuretics and all those who are being treated with pharmaceuticals from the same therapeutic group, which are in general, people who suffer from asthmatic problems to a greater or lesser degree, and that represent a considerable proportion of the world population (10% in 1995).

Although the diagnosis of intoxication by andrenergic agonists b2 is extremely difficult in an isolated patient, the authors believe the chance of intoxication should be seriously taken into account when the corresponding symptomatology occurs in a group of people who have eaten liver – this being the edible tissue where the pharmaceuticals in question accumulate in the greatest quantity and for longer.

The authors suggest that in cases of intoxication – like those registered in Portugal – that the sanitary authority is alerted, namely the new Agência para a Qualidade e Segurança Alimentar (Agency for Food Quality and Security). If it is possible to analyse the foods in question, efforts should be made to identify the butcher that sold the meat, the slaughterhouse and the producer, in order to be able to act against those responsible for crime of Public Health.

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