Ever since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized hemp in the United States, there has been rising interest in hemp-derived products, including those that can be consumed. Regulators at the US Food and Drug Administration are racing to roll out regulations for these products that human consumers increasingly demand. But hemp in feed for cows and chickens on the farm? That’s a different story.
Because humans sometimes eat the food that comes from livestock, hemp-based animal feed will require a greenlight from federal regulators. Still, there is significant interest from those in the hemp industry who argue that hemp as an addition to animal feed is a no brainer: It’s easy to grow, an effective cover crop, and high in nutrients.
“Why wouldn’t I use that?”
Ethan Vorhes, an Iowa cattle farmer and director of the Iowa Hemp Association, said that when he first learned about the plant’s many uses, “I fell like a fish—hook, line, and sinker.” His family had grown hemp during World War II, he said, adding, “I got stuck on the notion that it gives me everything I need to accomplish making the meat healthier, and it helps with the soil in the crop rotation.”
He thought it would make sense to feed hemp to his own cattle. But it soon became clear to Vorhes that, despite hemp legalization, hemp products not yet approved for this use.
The FDA has raised questions about whether it’s safe for humans to eat meat, eggs, and dairy from production animals that ate hemp. In a speech about hemp and CBD at the National Industrial Hemp Council’s 2019 Hemp Business Summit in August of this year, Lowell Schiller, the Principal Associate Commissioner for Policy of the FDA, said, “When it comes to food-producing animals, we also need to think about how the ingredient might be passed through to meat, dairy, or eggs that humans might consume.”
In other words: Could cannabinoids show up in the food we eat from animals eating hemp? If so, what are the implications for regulating these animal products?
Though few US studies have assessed the risks of cannabinoid transfer in hemp to livestock, one conducted by the European Food Safety Authority in 2011 determined that hemp seed-fed cow’s milk to be safe, but warned of allowing whole hemp-fed cow’s milk on the market. THC levels in milk from cows fed whole hemp plants was considerably above the Provisional Maximum Tolerable Daily Intake (PMTDI). But when the cows were fed hemp-seed material in the same study, the THC transfer was well below the PTDMI. Its recommendation was “to put whole hemp plant-derived feed materials [on a] list of materials whose placing on the market or use for animal nutritional purposes is restricted or prohibited,” but to allow for a maximum THC level in “hemp-seed derived feed materials.”
Vorhes described his early thinking as “there’s a waste product going into dumpsters and it’s perfect for my cattle, so why wouldn’t I use that?” But, he said, “It’s hard to jeopardize something like a $10,000 animal over a feedstuff.”