Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Truth about Diethylstilbestrol

The book My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki is about the story of an American-Japanese woman Jane who is hired to do a T.V. show by Japanese producers to introduce beef into the Japanese culture. Since there is no existing market in Asia for beef, they are hoping to promote beef consumption into the Asian culture. As she learns about the meat industry she starts to realize how many issues there are within it. One of the issues she discusses is the growth hormone DES that was used to support faster growth in cattle and chicken in meats and poultry up through the 70’s.  Even though the growth hormone was known to be harmful since 1938, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) claimed the hormone was safe for consumption for many years. These two organizations cannot be trusted to operate correctly on their own and they need to be regulated and surveyed constantly. They suppressed many test results proving the risks associated with DES. Even after it was clear beyond doubt that DES was extremely harmful the FDA and USDA insisted it was non-cancerous and waited for years to finally ban it, first banning the intentional addition and then banning it completely.
            DES stands for diethylstilbestrol and is a growth hormone that was regularly fed to cows and chicken to promote faster growth before slaughter. It was also a supplement administered to women during pregnancy to reduce the chance of miscarriage. Over the last 70 years research has shown that exposure to DES results in health risk problems for both men and women. This means that anyone who has consumed DES or anyone that has parents or grandparents that have consumed the growth hormone have health risks related to DES. Women that were exposed to DES first hand have a moderately increased risk of breast cancer. If a man is exposed to it, it can result in feminization. (Center for Disease Control) If a woman consumed DES during her pregnancy, the results can be even worse for their daughters. ‘DES daughters’ are at increased risk for vaginal and cervical cancer, infertility and other problems with the reproductive system. (DES daughters) ‘DES sons’ are at no real risk; the only effect linked to the hormone is non-cancerous cysts on the genitals. The FDA and the USDA knew about these adverse health affects and did nothing to stop the use of DES.
 DES pills that were given to pregnant women.

            Jane, the main character first comes across DES while interviewing Miss Helen. Miss Helen is a black woman that lives in the south. She and her husband admit that he had once suffered side effects from DES after eating chicken that was loaded with it. His voice became higher pitch and his breasts started growing. After this discovery Jane wanted to know more and started investigating on her own. She discovers the whole history behind DES. The cattle, the chickens, the pregnancy supplement, then she finds out that Europe banned American meat import in 1989. In 1990 Japans government then lowers the import tax on meat after being pressured into it by the U.S. government. Then, in 1991 Jane starts working on her T.V. show. She realizes that she is just part of a much bigger game being played.
            Jane soon starts to realize that she herself may be effected by DES. She goes to a factory farm run by John Dunn to film footage for her show, but her cameraman also gathered footage of something else. The footage was of the five-year-old daughter of John Dunn. It is of her naked body, revealing pubic hair and developing breasts. John’s son also experienced effects from the DES used on his fathers’ farm. Jane is pregnant at the time, and when she has an accident and gets rushed to the hospital she is frightened that her baby might suffer from her exposure, not only from her mother, but also from the farm. Jane ends up losing the child. She made a documentary from the footage of the farm, and when the Dunn’s farm is busted because of their daughters worsening health condition from illegal use of DES she starts selling her documentary to news stations around the world. This completes Jane’s story, she is finally a documentarian, as she had always wanted to be.
DES was approved by the American beef industry in 1954. For two years the cattle industry did not jump onto these new supplements, but in 1956 the beef producers started adding DES into their cattle’s diets. (Banarjee, Abhijit) In early tests with chickens, DES was found to promote a growth rate three times that of normal diets. The hormone was first administrated to cattle orally and then a few years later as technology developed through implants near the ear or the shoulder. This resulted in even more residue in the meat. Soon after that DES was administered both orally and via implant. This was quickly illegalized but the FDA had no way to check if the farmers abided by it, so they didn’t. Eventually 80% to 95% if not more of American cattle were fed DES. (Raun, A.P.)
The carcinogenicity of DES has been clear since 1938 however the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA approved the hormone for consumption and use for cattle in 1947. During this time DES was already used in poultry production and causing negative health effects on people. After multiple congressional hearings on DES the Delaney Law was passed in 1958, which banned the deliberate addition of carcinogens.(About FDA) However, the use of DES continued on the alleged grounds that it did not leave any amount of detectable residue in the meat. The reality was that there were extremely cancerous levels of DES in much of the meat on the U.S. market. In 1959 the FDA banned DES implants in chickens because of its negative health effects. (Encyclopedia Britanica) The pre-approval system back then was flawed and the hormone would most likely never be approved today. Even with that, “there are several inexplicable oversights on the part of the FDA regulators.” (Initial Testing & FDA Approval) Which means that someone pulled some strings to prevent the complete illegalization of the hormone. By 1971 twenty other countries banned the use of DES altogether. Even then, the FDA and USDA continued to insist that DES was not harmful until 1979 when it was finally banned in America. “In 1980 however, half a million cattle from one hundred and fifty-six feedlots in eighteen states were found with illegal DES implants.” (Ozeki, Ruth L.) This means that regardless of DES’s illegal status farmers were still using it with no regards to the consequences of their actions. This makes it hard to trust our meat industry even today.A cow that was treated with growth hormones to produce more milk.

            Growth hormones are now completely illegal to be used with poultry, which is a good thing since it seemed to have the most impact in chickens. However growth hormones are still being used today for meat and milk production. For example the growth hormone called rBGH is still being added to milk cows to increase their milk production, thus making the cows more profitable for the farmers. The USDA and the FDA claim that they are safe, but there is a growing concern that the residue left by the hormone is harmful to humans.[1] Even more questionable are the six growth hormones that farmers are aloud to use in America today. Of the six growth hormones three are synthetic and three are naturally occurring.  The European Union still to this day banns all meat trade with America. The use of growth hormones is not permitted in Europe. “The European Committee also questioned whether hormone residues in the meat of "growth enhanced" animals and can disrupt human hormone balance, causing developmental problems, interfering with the reproductive system, and even leading to the development of breast, prostate or colon cancer.”(Artificial Hormones, Hormone Residue in Meat) This means that the growth hormones that the cattle are fed today may not be any safer then DES.
            Just like Jane, through research, I realized how much is wrong with our meat industry and that it really cannot be trusted. Jane experienced and witnessed grotesque things first hand when she started to dive into the growth hormone issue. My experiences were not as intense but it certainly helped me realize that not all meat is the same and you should be conscientious of where your meat and milk comes from because even though it may not impact you dramatically, it could still have an impact on your children especially if you are pregnant. Even though the FDA and the USDA are supposed to make sure that everything in the market is safe for consumption. They have failed in the past, so we have no reason to assume that they are perfect.  

Works Cited:
 "About FDA." FDA History. FDA. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <>.

"Artifical Hormones, Hormone Residue in Meat - The Issues - Sustainable Table."Sustainabletable. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <>.

Banarjee, Abhijit. "Growth Hormones in Food." Articlebase., 03 Aug. 2008. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <>.

"Diethylstilbestrol (DES)." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <>.

"Initial Testing & FDA Approval." Diethylstilbestrol – Friend or Foe? Wordpress. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <>.

"Known Health Effects for DES Daughters." DES. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <>.

"Known Health Effects for Women Prescribed DES While Pregnant." CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <>.

"Known Health Effects for DES Daughters." DES. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <>.

Raun, A. P., and R. L. Preston. "History of Diethylstilbestrol Use in Cattle." Web. <>.

"Initial Testing & FDA Approval." Diethylstilbestrol – Friend or Foe? Wordpress. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <>.

Ozeki, Ruth L. "Chapter 6." My Year of Meats. New York: Viking, 1998. 126. Print.


  1. I have to disagree with the statement "'DES sons' are at no real risk; the only effect linked to the hormone is non-cancerous cysts on the genitals".
    DES is a potent chemical castration agent; just 3mg per day is enough to completely shut down testosterone production in men suffering from prostate cancer. The starting dose for miscarriage treatment was 5mg per day (and often reached 125mg per day or more towards the end of the pregnancy - more than 40 times the dose required to chemically castrate an adult man).
    Given that testosterone plays a crucial role in driving male sexual development in the unborn child, what do you think DES did to the DES sons who were exposed to it in the womb? Not surprisingly, most of the ones I've been in contact with over the last 18 months are physically and/or psychologically intersexed, and problems with fertility as well as endocrine problems and hypogonadism appear to be really common as well. Why do you think there are so many middle-aged men undergoing sex change procedures? It's not due to some sudden craze for gender diversity; it's because exposure before birth to female hormone treatments such as DES (or the drug that replaced it, hydroxyprogesterone caproate) is creating large numbers of people with male bodies but heavily feminized brains!

  2. Hi there, where did you get that photo of DES pills? We'd like to use that photo as stock for a project we are working on and would need to find the origins of the photo... any chance you can direct us? thank you!