hair exposes illegal hormone use in cattle
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Hair exposes illegal hormone use in cattle

A new technique, developed by researchers at Rikilt, can now detect the presence of forbidden hormones in the hair of cattle. Unlike previously-used urine tests, which are unreliable because the natural fluctuation of hormones in cattle is so large, the new hair test is 100 percent accurate. If the hormones in question are found in the hair, they were not naturally produced by the animal itself.

“The hormones that we looked at are natural hormones,” says Dr. Michel Nielen from Rikilt. “Boldenone and testosterone, both powerful androgens found in commercial preparations, are also manufactured by cattle themselves. If you test the animals’ urine you find conversion products from the hormones, whether or not they have been given synthetic hormones.”

The use of testosterone, boldenone and other growth hormones is forbidden in the EU, because scientists fear that the consumption of hormone-treated meat may adversely affect people’s health in the long-term. Beef farmers, however, are less concerned with the law, because they can earn more per cow if they use forbidden substances. Thus, a black market for hormone products has arisen.

The ministry of agriculture tries to keep the situation under control by carrying out checks of the cattle. Until now, however, the available testing methods were imperfect. Nielen and his research team, who published their findings in the Journal of Chromatography B, Analytical Technologies in the Biomedical and Life Sciences, have solved that problem by testing hair from cattle, rather than urine.

Nielen’s new technique makes use of the fact that manufacturers manipulate naturally occurring hormones. “In commercial preparations containing natural hormones, the hormones have been esterised,” explains Nielen. “The hormones are attached to a fatty acid so that they circulate for longer in the body. Enzymes remove the fatty acid from the hormone.” This process happens so quickly that the esters do not show up in the urine. But those particular enzymes are not active in the cattle’s hair, so synthetic hormone esters are stored there unchanged.

Because the esterised versions of testosterone and boldenone do not occur naturally, the scientists’ discovery makes it possible to provide conclusive evidence that an animal has been given forbidden substances. The new technique is also highly sensitive – Nielen and his colleagues at Rikilt and the University of Gent in Belgium found intact esterised testosterone and boldenone in the hairs of cattle that been given one single injection of illegal growth hormones two weeks earlier.

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