Beef and its products are an important source of nutrition in many human societies. Methods of production vary and include the use of hormonal compounds (‘hormones’) to increase growth and lean tissue with reduced fat deposition in cattle. The hormonal compounds are naturally occurring in animals or are synthetically produced xenobiotics and have oestrogenic (oestradiol-17β and its esters; zeranol), androgenic (testosterone and esters; trenbolone acetate) or progestogenic (progesterone; melengestrol acetate) activity. The use of hormones as production aids is permitted in North American countries but is no longer allowed in the European Union (EU), which also prohibits the importation of beef and its products derived from hormone-treated cattle. These actions have resulted in a trade dispute between the two trading blocs. The major concern for EU authorities is the possibility of adverse effects on human consumers of residues of hormones and metabolites. Methods used to assess possible adverse effects are typical of those used by international agencies to assess acceptability of chemicals in human food. These include analysis of quantities present in the context of known biological activity and digestive, absorptive, post-absorptive and excretory processes. Particular considerations include the low quantities of hormonal compounds consumed in meat products and their relationships to endogenous production particularly in prepubertal children, enterohepatic inactivation, cellular receptor- and non-receptor-mediated effects and potential for interference with growth, development and physiological function in consumers. There is particular concern about the role of oestradiol-17β as a carcinogen in certain tissues. Now subject to a ‘permanent’ EU ban, current evidence suggests that certain catechol metabolites may induce free-radical damage of DNA in cell and laboratory animal test systems. Classical oestrogen-receptor mediation is considered to stimulate proliferation in cells maintaining receptivity. Mathematical models describing quantitative relationships between consumption of small amounts of oestrogens in meat in addition to greater concentrations from endogenous production, chemical stoichiometry at cellular level and human pathology have not been developed. Such an approach will be necessary to establish ‘molecular materiality’ of the additional hormone intake as a component of relative risk assessment. The other hormones, although generally less well researched, are similarly subject to a range of tests to determine potentially adverse effects. The resulting limited international consensus relates to the application of the ‘precautionary principle’ and non-acceptance by the European Commission of the recommendations of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which determined that meat from cattle, hormone-treated according to good practice, was safe for human consumers. The present review considers the hormone issue in the context of current international social methodology and regulation, recent advances in knowledge of biological activity of hormones and current status of science-based evaluation of food safety and risk for human consumers.
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