It is not the cows themselves that black marketeers are interested in so much as the hormone drugs that enhance meat production. The use of hormone drugs in meat production has been outlawed in the European Union since 1989. But that blanket ban has helped to create a lucrative and well- organised black market.
The organised criminal rings that control this trade are prepared to go to disturbing lengths to circumvent the ban. Murder, for a start, is not beyond them. A year ago hormone dealers put out a contract on Karel Van Noppen, a 43-year-old Belgian government vet and chief meat inspector who led a relentless crusade to stamp out hormone abuse.
His widow Mieke recalls the death threats, the phone calls in the night, the warnings to ease off. "I did not try to stop him. It was his whole life, I knew he would not stop" she says.
Van Noppen's associates believe he was close to unmasking the masterminds of a network spanning Belgium and Holland and probably extending into France when he was silenced. He was shot at close range just yards from his front door.
Van Noppen was not alone. Another Belgian vet had his front door peppered with bullets. An MEP who has campaigned against the hormone trade has had a petrol bomb and a hand grenade hurled at him. Other vets have been beaten up.
Hormone dealing is thought to be the second most lucrative organised crime racket in Belgium after drugs.
Hormone compounds are relatively easy to manufacture. When injected into animal muscle to artificially stimulate growth, hormones can yield increases in profits for intensive producers by large margins, anything from 10 per cent to more than double the normal profit of about pounds 100 per animal.
The Belgian authorities reacted to the murder by putting in place tougher controls, spot checks on farms and at abattoirs, and setting up a dedicated police unit to attack the mafia . A new law has brought in fines of up to pounds 510,000.
But the killers have not been traced and the Belgian agriculture minister, Karel Pinxten, admitted recently that the mafia 's "hard core" is as active as ever.
Consumer groups, spurred by a wave of public revulsion following the Van Noppen murder, have been monitoring meat in the shops and claim that as much as 25 per cent of beef on sale contains hormone residues. Butchers and supermarket chains are increasingly turning to organic producers or suppliers able to guarantee hormone-free meat.
Public concern has also been mounting in Ireland, which is believed to be a key target for drug dealers operating out of Belgium and Holland.
In 1992 the Irish police seized a large quantity of banned growth hormones when they raided the home of a senior official in the Irish Department of Agriculture. Just last month a Tipperary cattle dealer, Danny Finning, was shot, possibly by an IRA punishment squad, for trading in clenbuterol, the so-called "angel dust". Eleven cattle in Fanning's meat plant were found with traces of the drug in their bodies. Peter Dargan, a former president of the Irish Veterinary Union, triggered alarm recently with a damaging claim that a quarter of Irish beef cattle is illegally hormone treated. The claim was emphatically denied by the Irish government, which says its controls show the figure is only around 3 per cent. But privately officials admit that the battle against purveyors of cocktails like "angel dust" and "jungle juice" is a long way from being won, despite harsh penalties ranging from fines of pounds 100 000 to 10-year jail terms.
"We believe the mafia is small but it is effective. And you will always find a minority of producers ready to take the risk," said one Irish official.
Some critics of the EU ban, reconfirmed and tightened by agriculture ministers yesterday despite British objections, argue that Brussels, by choosing to go against the scientific evidence, is playing into the hands of the illegal drug dealers by driving the trade underground.
Hormones are permitted in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, so inevitably some European producers believe they can compete better with the help of anabolic steroids or similar substances.
Consumers could be at even greater risk, the argument goes, because users of illegal hormones are using unsupervised cocktails. They are also injecting them directly into the flesh of the beast to avoid detection, whereas formerly they might have been concentrated in the ear or animal parts not destined for human consumption.
Some veterinary medicines that are legal for treating respiratory conditions in horses and pets are also being abused as cattle growth promoters. Scientists agree that residues of these substances could pose alarming risks for human health but are now wondering if the mafia would find a market for them if the "safe" steroid hormones like oestradiol and progesterone were decriminalised.
What are growth promoters?
In 1980, an Italian school boy allegedly started to grow breasts after eating veal that contained a synthetic hormone, diethylstilbestrol, which had been given to cattle to promote weight gain and increase the proportion of lean muscle. At the time of the scandal there were few controls on the use of hormone growth promoters in cattle within the EC. Within a year, the stilbenes and stilbene derivatives were banned throughout the EC but there was no agreement on five other hormones. Three of them are already naturally present in cattle: oestradiol, progesterone, and testosterone; while two trenbolone and zeranol are synthetic analogues of the natural hormones.
The drugs fall into the same general class as the anabolic steroids whose human analogues have been abused by bodybuilders. The bovine equivalents increase the efficiency with which cattle converted feed to muscle. Because different countries were regulating the use of growth promoters differently, the Council of Agriculture Ministers decided in 1988 to ban all growth promoters completely. The EC also banned the import of meat produced by the prohibited method. In 1995, the Gatt Uruguay Round was finally implemented and the United States announced that it would regard the European Union ban as a barrier to trade.
Farmers estimate that they can get a 10 per cent increase in the efficiency with which the cows convert their feed into muscle (meat). As a result of the use of hormones and mass-production techniques, American beef is signficicantly cheaper than European. However, some animal breeders believe that similar gains can be made by selective breeding "and you don't have to pay pharmaceutical companies".
Animal welfare organisations maintain that selective breeding has already pushed farm animals close to their physiological limits. They warn that the animals' skeletons will not keep pace with the accelerated growth provoked by injections of hormones, which would trigger literally crippling deformities in the legs and hips. Such problems have been seen in poultry and pigs.
The chunk of meat
Consumers and health officials were worried that residues of the hormones might be present in meat after slaughter, with consequent health effects, including the possible "masculinising" of women who ate meat containing testosterone residues. Even before the Italian health scare, there had been accounts of butchers fathering more sons than average as a result of their exposure to hormones. But in 1982 a Scientific Working Group under the chairmanship of professor Eric Lamming of Nottingham University, reported to the European Commission that the three natural hormones would not present any harmful effects to the health of consumers when used as growth promoters. The risks to consumers are difficult to establish but do not seem to be great.
Never the less Dr Chris Brown, beef strategy manager for the UK's Meat and Livestock Commission, says: "We are not talking about doubling or quadrupling an animal's weight. But producers are conscious of the `what is the consumer going to say about this?' factor. If we can't sell it to the consumers, then there is not going to be the drive for it. At the end of the day, political considerations are going to drive this one."
The administration even of powerful drugs that are neatly packaged as slow release injectable pellets is unlikely to cause an occupational health and safety risk to farmers. However, there are reports of some European farmers adding growth promoters illegally to feed and being exposed to dangerous concentrations - leading to death in a couple of cases. This appears not to be a problem with the hormones but with the powerful drug clenbuterol - a `beta-blocker" that can cause severe heart problems. There is evidence of a lucrative black market in Ireland and continental Europe for this particular drug.
Injections of bovine growth hormone produced by genetic engineering have been proposed as a means of increasing milk production. Although this is not the subject of the current controversy, it is another area in which the EU and the US are out of step. Growth hormone is also naturally produced by the cows, and so any residues in the milk would be indistinguishable from the real thing. But there are reports of increased mastitis (infections of the udder) in cows where the injections have been used on an experimental basis.
Accelerated growth also increases the demands on the animals' cardiovascular systems, according to Compassion in World Farming.
Farmers (not vets) use an injection gun with a needle inserted into the cartiledge at the base of the ear, and press the trigger to expell a small pellet into the ear.
The pellet then acts as a slow release patch -- rather like some long- acting human contraceptives -- allowing a small amount of the hormone to enter the animal's bloodstream continually over subsequent months.