WASHINGTON – The US Dept. of Agriculture’s Never Fed Beta Agonists Program was intended for exporters. But a New York Times report states companies that do not export meat products can also use the label.

Beta agonists have been used in food animal production to promote growth and leanness in livestock. However, beta agonists such as ractopamine came under fire after studies appeared to show the drugs caused sickness or death in cattle and pigs.

The pork industry vigorously defended the use of ractopamine in pork production. The US Food and Drug Administration evaluated and approved ractopamine, and the drug has been approved for use in 26 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and South Korea, according to the National Pork Producers Council. However, the European Union, China, Taiwan and Thailand impose bans on imports of pork from pigs fed ractopamine. Russia also implemented a requirement that meat be tested and certified free of ractopamine.

In 2013, Smithfield Foods Inc. announced plans to phase out ractopamine use at its hog farms. At the time, Larry Pope, CEO of Smithfield, said the company changed its hog raising practices to accommodate the needs of its export markets. The company’s plant in Clinton, NC had been ractopamine-free since 2012.

In response to concerns about the drug and the need to expand export markets for US meat products, the Agricultural Marketing Service of the USDA created a program to verify and monitor companies’ Never Fed Beta Agonists marketing claims. “Beef and pork meat and meat products derived from animals that meet the requirements to be labeled as Never Fed Beta Agonists are eligible for customers that require verification of a marketing claim that the meat is derived from animals that were never fed beta agonists and is free of beta agonist residues,” the agency says on its website.