Recently, the dressage community was shocked to learn that two well-known rider/trainers were suspended by the FEI based on drug testing of two horses who tested positive for the banned substance ractopamine. Positive FEI drug tests in US dressage horses are extremely rare. The last positive test was Courtney King-Dye in 2008, which was a result of topical contamination.
In this most recent case, when the riders and owners of the two horses were notified of the test results, they immediately compared information on what their horses were fed. The common denominator was the feed.
This medication is approved in the US for pigs, turkeys, and cattle to build muscle and size. Nearly 160 nations ban or restrict the use of this drug during pig production, including the EU, Russia and China.
Ractopamine belongs to a class of drugs called beta agonists that were developed to treat asthma and adapted for animal use when they were shown to boost growth rates by increasing protein synthesis. The drug clenbuterol, used for COPD and other airway diseases, is also a beta agonist drug. The FDA has linked ractopamine to nearly a quarter million reported adverse events in pigs — more than any other animal drug.
According to the Cornucopia Institute, the controversial drug is used in as many as 80% of all American pig and cattle operations. In cattle production, the drug is administered during the days leading up to slaughter. Other drugs used in cattle and hogs require a clearance period of two weeks to ensure the compounds are flushed from the body prior to slaughter. However, there is no clearance period required for ractopamine.
While ractopamine was the illegal substance found in the urine samples of the two dressage horses, cases of other contaminated feeds include monensin (sold under the trade name Rumensin) which is a polyether antibiotic classified as an ionophore. It is promoted to the cattle industry for improving weight gain. Like ractopamine, monensin is added as a premix to pelleted and bulk feeds.
Monensin is toxic and deadly to horses in trace amounts. Once a horse has ingested monensin, the damage is irreversible and treatment is supportive. Symptoms of monensin toxicity include colic, sweating, muscle wasting, bloating, kidney failure, damage to the heart muscle, respiratory distress, stiffness and inability to stand.
Zilpaterol (trade name Zilmax) is another member of the drug family of beta agonists, like ractopamine. It is used primarily in the beef industry to put more weight on cattle before slaughter. Zilpaterol is not a health safety issue for horses, but is a banned substance.
How common is feed contamination?
A journey down the rabbit hole illuminated me to the fact that contamination is not as rare as one would hope. From 2013 to 2016 there has been a total of 221 reported deaths, injuries, and positive drug tests from contaminated equine feeds, not including the positive drug tests from several Canadian provinces whose precise numbers I was unable to locate. What we don’t know is the number of horses possibly exposed to ractopamine who were never tested.
The US is not the only country that faces feed contamination. In September, 2015, two Swiss jumper riders were finally declared “No Fault” by the FEI after their horses tested positive for morphine and codeine. The riders were able to establish a case of contamination by feed company Swissfritz. The feed had been contaminated with poppy seeds.
The Queen of England’s second place Ascot winner, Estimate, tested positive for morphine in 2014. Poppy seeds contain minute amounts of morphine and codeine. The contamination came from poppy seeds entering the supply chain during harvesting, processing, transport or storage. For eight horses that returned a positive test for morphine, contamination was traced back to feed sold by Dodson & Horrell Feed Company. According to the British Horseracing Authority, no penalty was imposed on the trainers; however, the horses were disqualified.
Here is a list of feed contamination cases made part of the public record in the US from 2013 to 2016:
• Western Milling, a California feed manufacturer, sold monensin-contaminated equine feed that killed or severely injured 50 horses. (2015)
• Lakeland Animal Nutrition, an Alltech company, produced adulterated equine feed (monensin) that killed eleven horses. (2014)
• A class action suit on behalf of over 100 horse-feed purchasers has been brought against Archer-Daniels-Midland Company (ADM) and ADM Alliance Nutrition. The plaintiffs seek damages of over $5 million for fraud, negligent misrepresentation and product liability. Of the 19 horses that tested positive for monensin poisoning, nine had to be euthanized. (2016)
• An out-of-court settlement was reached between Kalmbach Feeds Inc. (Tribute Equine Nutrition) and the plaintiffs over contamination of Tribute feed that killed the plaintiffs’ Percheron horses. The feed tested positive for monensin. (2016)
• The US Department of Justice filed an enforcement action against Syfrett Feed Company Inc. of Okeechobee, Florida. Seventeen horses died in 2014 from eating the pelleted horse feed. (2017)
• The Canadian Pari-Mutuel Agency issued a warning regarding the drug ractopamine appearing in feeds. Following several positive tests in Ontario, the Ontario Racing Commission undertook an investigation that found ractopamine in batches of horse feed. Similar findings were reported in Alberta and Quebec. The standardbred trainers whose horses had tested positive for ractopamine were cleared at their hearings, and not assessed penalities resulting from contamination of the feed. (2014)
• Forty-eight race horses in California tested positive for zilpaterol in a number of Purina Animal Nutrition sweet feed products manufactured in Turlock, California. The feeds affected were Purina Race Ready, Purina Strategy, Purina Omoline-200, Country Acres Horse Feed and Country Acres Sweet-12. (2013)
• Thoroughbred racehorse trainer Kelly Von Hemel was found blameless by the Prairie Meadows Board of Stewards when two of his horses rested positive for ractopamine. He was able to prove the contamination originated from a batch of Triple Crown 14% Racing Performance feed produced at the Consumers’ Supply Distributing mill in North Sioux City, South Dakota. The mill admitted that it ran cattle feed supplemented with ractopamine prior to the production run of Triple Crown horse feed. (2016)
• Bartlett Milling recalled two of its equine feeds because of possible monensin contamination. The feeds were distributed in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. (2014)
• Nutrena Feeds has stated that it is conducting an investigation of contaminated feed made in LeCompte, Louisiana that killed one barrel racing horse and sickened another. As of this writing, no more information has been made available about this investigation. (2016)
• Three horses died at Camelot Farms on St. Helena Island, South Carolina from feed contaminated with monensin. The feed was supplied by ADM Alliance. (2014)
While far more rare than feed contamination, supplements can also be contaminated.
British endurance rider Christine Yeoman was suspended by the FEI in 2008 when her horse tested positive for ractopamine. Traces of the drug were found in her supplement, Neigh-Lox, produced by Kentucky Performance Products. Yeoman spent over $200,000 dollars to clear her name and win an unprecedented ruling from the FEI.
There’s also the famous 2009 case, where a vitamin/mineral supplement prepared by a compounding pharmacy killed 21 polo ponies because the supplement contained toxic levels of selenium.
How does contamination occur?
One of the most common avenues of contamination comes from running medicated livestock feeds and then equine feeds through the same machinery without proper cleaning of the hopper and the lines. Without a thorough protocol for cleaning, disinfecting, and decontaminating the machinery between runs, traces of ractopamine and monensin can remain, and even traces can lead to disaster down the line.
Sometimes mills will simply run flour through the hopper and lines to “clean” them before running equine feeds. There is also the unhappy employee, who either intentionally or due to laziness, lack of sleep, or too many drinks the night before doesn’t follow protocol. Sloppy protocol and human error are both huge contributors to contamination.
Because of the sophisticated testing used by the FEI and racing commissions, ractopine can be detected at levels as low as 0.01 ppm. Many feed mills, however, only test their products for ractopine levels higher than 0.50 or 0.60 ppm. This is one of the big challenges facing the feed industry; their “acceptable” levels of contamination are set too high.
Transportation and storage can also contribute to contamination. To address this, some companies claim to have set up transportation safety protocols including truck pre-load inspections and a feed safety protocol for the transport of bulk feed ingredients. If a shipping company truck has carried anything not found on the feed mill’s list of acceptable loads, the truck is not used. Some companies also have instituted a policy of not shipping finished feeds in bulk, but only in bags, to prevent possible contamination. However, many ingredients and premixes that mills receive from their suppliers are still shipped in bulk — not in bags.
How can we reduce the risk of feeding contaminated feeds?
Purchase feed from a company whose mills only produce horse feed. Unfortunately, these mills are rare, as most mills that make horse feed also make livestock feed, particularly medicated livestock feed.
- Buy organic feed; mills that are certified organic cannot run medicated feeds.
- Non-GMO ingredients are important for overall horse health, but can still come from facilities that make medicated feeds. A mill that provides a dedicated, medication-free production line for their equine feeds is still at risk when there are medications on the premises.
- Component feeding can reduce risk, as you are buying individual feed components that are often milled in facilities that only mill rice, or oats, or coconut, or wheat or forage. For example, rice bran is milled in rice mills. These mills only mill rice products.
- Dehydrated foods like coconut meal, timothy pellets/cubes and alfalfa pellets/cubes are available from companies that only mill coconut or forages or certified organic ingredients (Cool Stance, Standlee, New Country Organics).
- Companies such as Renew Gold have their equine products made in specific facilities: one in California and one in Ohio, neither of which make any medicated feeds or keep any medication on the premises. Renew Gold has their raw ingredients bagged before transport to production, and then bagged immediately after the production run.
- Check with the feed company about the transportation protocols used for their individual ingredients. Do not underestimate the risk of contamination coming from ingredients transported in bulk, not bags.
- Remember, mills are testing their own feeds for contamination at much more lenient “acceptable” levels than the testing labs of federations and racing commissions. This means that companies need to start lowering their threshold of acceptable contamination. For those of us in the equine industry, the only acceptable level is zero.
There are other contaminants to be aware of: mold, mycotoxins, and heavy metals (arsenic, cadmium, lead, aluminum) can be found in individual feed components like rice bran (arsenic), corn (mycotoxins), and seaweeds (arsenic, lead, aluminum). The use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture increases the concentration of heavy metals, including excess iron.
Rice bran is a popular food for horses, but check with the company you purchase rice bran from to find out where the rice bran is grown. Texas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Arkansas have the highest arsenic levels. California has the lowest. Imported rice from India and China has lower levels of arsenic than rice from the southern US states. Brown rice, which is the source of rice bran, is more affected than white rice because the bran is where much of the arsenic is absorbed.
Companies that use kelp and seaweeds in their feeds or supplements should have a certificate of analysis (COA) on file that shows the levels of trace elements like arsenic in their product. As a consumer, it is your right to request copies of a COA if you want verification of a company’s low trace element claim.
The good news is that equine supplement contamination via livestock medication is rare. This is due to the fact that many equine supplements are not made in feed mills that produce medicated feeds. It is important to check with companies you purchase supplements from and find out if their products are made in feed mills. Some feed companies also supply supplements, so it is very important to find out if those feed company supplements are made in livestock feed mills.
Supplement companies that outsource their production to contract manufacturers (in other words, they don’t make their products in-house) can have less control over their raw material and the quality of the ingredients than supplement companies who make their own products.
A list of animal and veterinary product recalls and withdrawals from the market can be found on the Food and Drug Administration’s official website here. The list is updated weekly, and you can also sign up for regular email notifications from this page.
A quick perusal showed that from Jan-April, 2017, there were 11 recalls mostly of dog and cat food, but one for rabbit pellets. One dog food brand was recalled for the presence of the drug phenobarbital.
Big Agriculture and feed
There was a time not so long ago when livestock and horse feed was simply mixed grains made in local mills, often from locally grown corn, oats, and barley. The advent of complete feeds added another component: vitamin/mineral premixes. But the rise in corporate, concentrated animal feeding operations brought the need to medicate thousands of animals kept in confinement. Thus began the era of medicated additives and medicated feeds, as concentrated feeding operations looked to the pharmaceutical industry for medications used to increasing the weight and size of their animals before slaughter.
In 2016, the global medicated feed additives market was estimated at $11.16 billion. Medicated feed concentrates — substances mixed with other feed materials to form a complete feed or as part of a feed supplement — are now estimated to represent the fastest growing segment of the market.
Another component of Big Ag is size. Over time, we have lost many of our small local and regional feed companies and mills because they were either swallowed up by Big Ag or unable to compete. What this has done is condense our feed supply, almost centralizing it to only a few big players. Think of the Big Ag companies as gigantic aircraft carriers: hard to quickly maneuver and slow to change course, even when a course change is essential. We consumers have become reliant on convenience, which complete feeds provide. But we are now beginning to see that the convenience may put our horses, dogs, and ourselves at risk. Big Ag is not just the producers and purveyors of animal and pet feed; the livestock they feed are the meats we eat.
Too big to fail? Following the bread crumbs…
There once was a company named Ralston Purina, founded in 1894. Purina Mills was the animal feed division of Ralston Purina that was sold in 1986 to British Petroleum, who then sold it to Sterling Group of Houston in 1993, and then to the Koch Brothers in 1998, and finally to Land O’ Lakes in 2001. Ralston Purina spun off its international feed business as Agribrands, which Cargill acquired in 2001. Cargill also owns Nutrena and Progressive Nutrition.
Also in 2001, Ralston Purina (now primarily a pet food company) merged with Swiss food giant Nestlé. This merger gave Nestlé ownership of the Purina “chow” brand names, which are now licensed to Purina Mills (Land O’ Lakes) by Nestlé. Outside the US, Nestlé licenses those branding rights for animal feeds to Cargill, Ltd. In Canada, for example, Purina Dog Chow is a Cargill product.
A brief perusal of recent recalls for livestock feeds yields these instances related to Purina Mills:
- July 13, 2012: Purina Fish Chow recall (for elevated levels of vitamin E)
- July 26, 2012: Purina Poultry Feed recall (for a lack of vitamin D)
- April 16, 2014: Purina Poultry Feed recall (for potential health risks from inadequate vitamin/mineral levels)
- February 23, 2015: DuMOR (a brand licensed by Purina Mills to Tractor Supply Co.) Sheep Feed Formula recall (for high copper)
- June 24, 2016: Purina Medicated Sheep Feed recall (for high copper)
Now let’s take a look at Cargill, who has the distinction of being the largest exporter of palm oil from Indonesia and New Guinea (they own the five largest palm oil plantations in those countries). Cargill is also the largest US importer of palm oil. They have destroyed 83,000 hectares (205,097.46 acres) of rainforest, causing massive disruption of habitat for elephants, orangutans, and Sumatran tigers.
This is not Cargill’s first deforestation effort. In the Amazon region of Brazil in the early 2000s, they played a large role in the destruction of the rainforest for soy plantations. The soy was primarily for animal feed.
A brief perusal of Cargill-related recalls yields these instances:
• December 14, 2011: poultry, calf, whole and cracked corn products recalled due to aflatoxin contamination from the Lecompte, Louisana plant (the same plant where the suspected monensin contamination of one of their equine feeds occurred in October, 2016)
• July 16, 2012: recall of WellSolve due to elevated vitamin D levels
• March 7, 2012: recall of goat feed because it was not labeled for the medication decoquinate, which is not approved for lactating goats
• April 10, 2013: recall of S-Series lamb feed because of incorrect sodium molybdate levels
• March 5, 2013: recall of ruminant mineral products that were deficient in vitamins A, D, and E
• December 2, 2013: recall of Nutrena NatureWise Meatbird Feed and NatureWise Chick Starter Grower (manufactured at facilities in Illinois, Oklahoma, and Texas) due to incorrect levels of calcium
• July 2, 2014: recall of Nutrena NatureWise Meatbird Feed due to excess levels of sodium
These items were all found on the first page of Google search results for Cargill recalls. I didn’t bother to go to page two.
Where do we go from here?
Despite the speed of the internet and the connectivity it provides, the equine community is largely separated between disciplines. I spoke recently with a couple of barrel racers who had no idea that ractopamine had shown up in a routine drug test of two dressage horses. Likewise, I had no idea about the two barrel-race horses who died from monensin contamination last year. Nor did I know about the Canadian standardbred horses, or the American thoroughbred race horses who tested positive for ractopamine. Contamination of feed is a problem for all of us in the horse world. But we need to share facts, not hyperbole.
We need to stand up for changes to Big Ag which require: a zero- tolerance stance toward medication residue in feeds; that equine feeds be made in medication-free facilities; that non-bagged bulk ingredients be tested for medication residue and other contaminants by load when they arrive at the mill before being blended into complete feed formulas.
We need to demand fixed-formula feeds, which list the ingredients specifically. One of the challenges of assessing feeds is that variable formulas don’t list ingredients on company websites, and that variable formulas change —weekly or even daily — according to the cheapest combination of ingredients available. The guaranteed analysis doesn’t change, but the ingredient combinations do. If ingredients on the bag of feed are listed generally as “processed grain products,” this can mean a number of different grain byproducts.
We need to demand organics, particularly of the feed ingredients most susceptible to glyphosate exposure: soy, alfalfa, corn, rice, sunflower seeds, flax, sugar beets, wheat, and molasses.
We need to stop accepting contamination as “business as usual.” There are so many recalls on the FDA site for food in general that it boggles the mind. Admittedly, some of the infractions are labeling issues such as undeclared soy in a chocolate product or undeclared milk in a marinara sauce. But many other infractions include Listeria and E. coli contamination in human food products.
The Big Ag facilities process huge amounts of food products and animal feeds, increasing exponentially the chances for contamination, whether it be beef thyroid hormone or pentobarbital in dog food or ractopamine or monensin in horse feed.
It’s time to demand more of the feed industry. We cannot accept the status quo.
References to help you stay on top of the feed industry:
Tigger Montague is an expert on equine nutrition and supplements with over thirty years of experience as a rider, researcher, formulator, and author of Whole Food for Horses.