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DES-Exposed Consumers Outraged
to Find Illegal DES in American Beef

by Nora Cody
Oakland, California

Nora CodyThis article is part of a series of commentaries by Nora Cody, First Do No Harm: A Consumer Health Advocate's Cautionary Tales, which examines issues in health and medical research, with a special focus on women's health topics.

On February 2, the Wall Street Journal reported that authorities in Switzerland had detected DES (diethylstilbestrol) in two shipments of American beef, "triggering a major U.S. investigation to pinpoint the source of the banned carcinogen and to determine how much domestic and export beef may have been contaminated."

The Swiss government notified the Clinton administration last July that DES, which is illegal in the U.S. and Switzerland, had been found in two samples of supposedly hormone-free U.S. beef, and that it had barred two U.S. companies from exporting to Switzerland. One of the companies is Farmland National Beef Packing Co. of Liberal, Kansas, the fourth-largest meatpacker in the U.S.

Cattle and sheep producers relied heavily on DES as a growth stimulant until 1979, when the FDA banned its use in food-producing animals, but not pets. The FDA also concluded there was no way of determining what levels of exposure to DES might be safe.

In response to this report, DES Action issued the following press release:

    We are dismayed but not surprised to learn that DES (diethylstilbestrol) has been found in beef exported from the U.S. to Switzerland. In spite of the years of horrors wrought via this carcinogenic substance, DES apparently remains a popular toxic tool for some cattle farmers.

    "This is just incredible," said Pat Cody, who took DES while pregnant with her daughter Martha. "To think that this drug which has harmed my daughter and so many others could now be hurting my grandchildren when they eat a hamburger."

    DES use in humans persisted far beyond the dictates of both medical science and common sense. Even though a reliable, well-done study in 1953 showed that DES was ineffective for its prescribed purpose, i.e. preventing miscarriages, pharmaceutical companies continued to make it and doctors prescribed it until 1971. Its use in cattle was finally banned in 1980 but this has not deterred some unscrupulous cattle producers from once again exposing the public to this toxic substance. Ironically, it took a foreign country the more cautious Switzerland to uncover this use in the United States.

    We call on the FDA and the USDA to move swiftly to not only sanction the offenders but to also enact more stringent controls to protect the public. We are alarmed that consumers are only learning about this now, when the tainted beef was discovered in July, 1999 (ironically, the same time that the National Institutes of Health convened a DES Research Conference to discuss the health effects caused by exposure to DES). We wonder if McDonaldís, Burger King, and other major burger outlets are taking steps to protect their customers from DES.

    Given the poor state of beef inspection in this country, there is no way of knowing the extent of exposure to DES for American and international consumers, particularly since the USDA has not tested beef for DES since 1991. However, the fact that the source of the DES-contaminated beef was the fourth-largest meatpacker in the U.S. is cause for great concern. Clearly, the USDA must immediately resume and expand testing for DES, and do whatever is necessary to rid our food supply of this deadly carcinogen.

Here is a letter that Nora Cody, on behalf of DES Action, sent to Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman:

    February 3, 2000

    The Honorable Dan Glickman
    Secretary of Agriculture
    Room 200-A
    Jamie L. Whitten Building
    Independence Avenue and 14th Street, SW
    Washington, D.C. 20250

    Dear Secretary Glickman:

    I write today on behalf of the estimated ten million Americans exposed to DES, to express our dismay and great concern about recent reports of DES-tainted beef. We support the recommendations put forth in Michael Jacobsonís letter to you, including the demand that those responsible for this crime by fully prosecuted.

    I am sure you can understand the distress this causes among not only those individuals already exposed to DES, but those consumers who thus far believed they had escaped exposure to this toxic substance. Until the Food Safety and Inspection Service can guarantee that our beef is free of DES, we must all wonder whether we are safe from carcinogenic hormones.

    We are concerned about the delay in reporting this crime to the American public. We have the right to know that there is the possibility of a tainted food supply, so that we can make informed choices in our consumption. How did the DES get into the beef? Has it been stockpiled for many years, or is someone currently supplying the cattle producers? To what extent might our children, who are more vulnerable than adults, have been exposed through their homes or through frequent visits to fast food restaurants?

    We call on the Department of Agriculture to make fully public the results of their investigation as soon as possible. We also urge the immediate resumption of testing for DES and for other banned and harmful substances, and the public disclosure of results of these tests. Humans exposed to DES during pregnancy and in utero have for decades confronted multiple obstacles in their search for the truth about their exposure. Let us not repeat that pattern today, in the way this DES exposure is handled.


    Nora Cody
    Executive Director

Published in In Motion Magazine February 28, 2000.