Fourteen years after Mexico banned cattle ranchers from using a growth enhancer called clenbuterol, statistics from the federal agency responsible for meat quality shows that some Mexican cattlemen just can’t give it up.
That’s especially true in the states surrounding Mexico City, where thousands of American retirees have settled and thousands of American tourists visit. Testing in the state of Guanajuato, home to the popular retiree center of San Miguel de Allende, found 30 percent of 175 samples tested were tainted with clenbuterol, which can cause heart palpitations, tremors, dizziness, nausea and increased anxiety in people who ingest it. Symptoms generally pass within two to six days.
Outside of a cluster of states in central Mexico, it appears unlikely that foreign tourists would feel ill effects from eating beef. Most major supermarkets and restaurant chains buy their beef from 117 large private slaughterhouses with on-site federal inspectors who conduct rigorous testing of meat for contamination. Northern Mexico and coastal resorts also appear free from the taint.
But that inspection regimen falls apart in a half-dozen Mexican states surrounding the capital, where cattlemen often sell their beef to smaller slaughterhouses operated by municipalities. That beef generally turns up at street markets, where poorer Mexican consumers shop, then goes to sidewalk taco stands, mom-and-pop restaurants and into Mexican homes.
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In many ways, tainted meat is emblematic of broader problems in Mexico, where rigorous laws exist but corruption often means enforcement is lax to non-existent. Ranchers in central Mexico spike their feed with illegal clenbuterol because it bulks beef cattle up and increases their profits, but the government makes only modest attempts to halt the practice. When it does act, the result often is simply to push lawbreakers to new locations.
Meanwhile, consumers seem to prefer the leaner, pinkish meat clenbuterol produces, either unaware or unconcerned of the health risks – a situation encouraged by authorities who downplay of the risk of falling ill, alleging that health statistics show that out of every million Mexicans, only one gets sick each year from the synthetic compound.
Yet that statistic masks both the widespread use of clenbuterol and the frequency with which tainted meat turns up.
In the first five months of this year, the Federal Commission for Sanitary Risk Protection, a federal agency that tests cattle and ensures food quality, found that 10 percent of the 943 samples of meat the agency tested at stores, markets and restaurants across the country contained some level of clenbuterol, according to Alvaro Israel Perez Vega, the chief of sanitary operations for the commission.
Among the 20 municipal slaughterhouses where blood or urine tests were conducted on soon-to-be-slaughtered animals, inspectors found seven facilities with clenbuterol-tainted cattle, Perez said, or one out of three.
One of those slaughterhouses is in this city, a garden community southwest of the capital that is a favorite for well-off Mexicans looking to escape the capital, 40 miles away, for a warmer, sunnier climate. In February, inspectors said two steers at the slaughterhouse tested positive for clenbuterol, so they suspended all activity.
“It lasted for a month, exactly 30 days,” said Jesus Antonio Subdiaz Aguilar, the staff veterinarian at the slaughterhouse.
The suspension marked the second time the city-owned slaughterhouse had been shut down by the feds over clenbuterol. The first time occurred in 2011.
Following the latest shutdown, ranchers using clenbuterol in their animal feed began taking their fattened cattle to competing slaughterhouses, where standards were even more lax to avoid the risk of being caught and having tainted animals incinerated.
“Look at the empty pens,” Subdiaz told a visitor, noting that cattlemen are bringing fewer steers to the facility. “We’re down 50 to 60 percent of what we were slaughtering before the suspension.”
The facility once butchered 800 cattle a month, but now slaughters fewer than 400, Subdiaz said.
Clenbuterol, which appeared in 1990, is part of a family of substances known as beta-agonists that increase lean muscle mass and speed up metabolic rates in animals. Once used for show animals, it slowly made its way onto animal feed lots, only to be banned in most developed countries by 2000.
Elite athletes have brought the performance-enhancing substance into the headlines more recently. Three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador tested positive for a minute quantity of clenbuterol in 2010, and the cyclist alleged afterward that he’d eaten contaminated steak from Spain. He was stripped of that year’s Tour de France title. A handful of hurdlers, sprinters, other cyclists and athletes in the hammer throw and shot put have been snared in anti-doping tests for clenbuterol.
Five members of the Mexican national soccer team tested positive for the substance in 2011, and trainers later blamed beef in a training camp cafeteria.
Following that finding, the Dutch Institute of Food Safety, acting on behalf of the international governing body for soccer, tested 47 samples of meat taken from hotel restaurants in Mexico. It reported that 14 samples came back positive for clenbuterol, said Saskia S. Sterk, a scientist with the institute.
Some ranchers in Mexico, China and a handful of other countries have refused to abandon clenbuterol, creating underground markets for the substance, which is mostly manufactured in Asia. More than 100 people were jailed in China in late 2011 in a food safety scandal over clenbuterol-laced pork.
“What clenbuterol does is reduce the quantity of fat and increase muscle volume. But the muscle retains a lot of water,” adding weight to livestock, said Dr. Hugo Fragoso Sanchez, director of animal health at the National Service of Health, Food Safety and Food Quality.
The persistence of clenbuterol use in central Mexico is partly because of regional dietary habits.
“In the north of the country, there’s an orientation more toward American cuts that always have fat, such as a New York or a sirloin. But in the central region, people like more of a Spanish cut – very thin with all the fat removed,” Fragoso said.
A veteran butcher at the Cuernavaca market, Marco Castaneda Barrios, said consumers demand the thinly sliced, lean cuts that are a trademark of clenbuterol-raised cattle. They differ from the marbled, bright red cuts of grain-fed beef.
“People look for this type of meat for the color,” Castaneda said, and regional ranchers are quick to oblige.
“It gives you a lot of profit. I’ve talked to cattle ranchers, and they say that instead of 100 days of fattening, they only fatten cattle for 90 days (using clenbuterol),” Castaneda said.
Castaneda said “high officials” are involved in the underground trade in clenbuterol, and the substance is “always sold where the feed lots are.”
In 2013, Mexico exported beef to the United States, Canada and some 30 other countries, but the chance of that meat containing clenbuterol is small.
Like the United States, Mexico has a two-tiered system of slaughterhouses, one tier geared partially toward higher-end consumers and for export. All beef for export comes from these slaughterhouses, where inspectors are always on site to conduct random tests for 120 or so possible contaminants. Large supermarket chains in Mexico like Wal-Mart, Soriana, La Mega and Chedraui buy meat only from these slaughterhouses and display a tag on packages to assure food safety.
It is the municipal slaughterhouses where the problems fester, and they run the gamut in facilities, safety procedures and controls over toxic substances, Fragoso said.
“Those that don’t have cold chambers receive cattle in the morning, sacrifice them and cut them up, and get it sold by noon,” he said.
Mobile federal inspectors who check on the municipal slaughterhouses often find problems. Since 2011, those inspectors have visited 164 slaughterhouses and found that 52 of them were slaughtering beef containing clenbuterol, said Perez of the federal commission for sanitary risk.
Perez said 30 percent of the municipal slaughterhouses inspected in both 2011 and 2012 were found with clenbuterol-tainted beef. The rate fell to 15 percent in 2013 before rising again this year to 35 percent.
Perez downplayed the risks to public health from tainted beef.
“If we have about 10 percent of the samples collected in the whole country with clenbuterol, this means that 90 percent of ranchers aren’t using it at all,” he asserted.