Why the mafia is into your beef

The EU ban on growth hormones for cows has created a lucrative black market, reports Katharine Butler

It might seem an unlikely product for the mafia to be interested in. Drugs, sex and gambling are its usual terrain. But in Europe, particularly in Belgium, the mafia is into beef.

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.

The back

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".

The hips

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 cow

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 farmers

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.

The udder

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.

The heart

Accelerated growth also increases the demands on the animals' cardiovascular systems, according to Compassion in World Farming.

The ear

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France
tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
News
people

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Extras
indybest
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Shift Supervisor

£20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to recent expansion and gro...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Support Worker

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A rewarding opportunity to work with an easy-...

Day In a Page

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum