Premarin, the top-selling hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopausal women, is made from pregnant mares’ urine (PMU). Estrogen is extracted from the urine and is sold in many different forms to help with the symptoms of menopause. Approximately 9 million women are currently taking some form of Premarin and that number is expected to rise due to aging baby boomers.
Premarin, made by Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, a subsidiary of American Home Products, is the only human estrogen replacement drug that is derived from animal products, most others are derived from soy and vegetables.
The patent on Premarin, owned by Wyeth-Ayerst, is about to expire. This may well result in the manufacture of an array of generic substitutes and is likely to increase the number of horses used in this industry.
Pregnant horses are four-legged drug machines being repeatedly impregnated and confined to narrow stalls as their urine is collected. Horses are kept inside for 6 months out of the year. The horses are housed in cramped stalls 8’x 3 1/2’x5’. Horses are hooked up to a urine collection bag that is fixed into position just below their tail.
These urine collection devices (UCDs) are painful and unhygienic. Urine soaks the skin of the vulva and can cause severe infection and painful lesions. The horses are tied with a short rope to keep them from taking more than a single step in either direction or from lying down.
After several years online, the mares are shipped to slaughterhouses where they are butchered so their meat can be exported to Europe or Japan for human consumption.
Today, there are 439 PMU farms still in existence. The majority are in Canada and a few are in North Dakota. In 1999 there were about 55, 000 to 65,000 mares on the “pee lines”. Guidelines state that horses should be offered water no less than two times per day. However, PMU farmers prefer to water as little as possible to keep the concentration of estrogen in the urine high. They are paid based on the concentration, not the volume of urine collected.
Every spring, each mare gives birth to a foal. These foals spend the first few months with their mothers and then are rounded up in September to allow their mothers to rejoin the lines. Most of these young horses are then taken to feed lots where they are fattened up and sold for slaughter. The meat is then exported to European and Asian markets for human consumption.
Ollie Bracken a retired Manitoba, Canada PMU farmer, stated in a 1995 interview that he retired from PMU farming because, “When you have to see a colt being born and then have to destroy it, it’s rough because they’re just babies. I just don’t think it was right to continue what I was doing.”
According to a former PMU farmer from New York, “piss farms,” as he called them, were located in New York and Vermont in the early 50s. Urine was collected by Wyeth-Ayerst, a subsidiary of American Home Products in Philadelphia, and taken to Montreal where it was processed into a powdered form and then shipped back to New York to be made into tablets and marketed
Most of the media attention regarding PMU farms has focused primarily on the mass production and slaughter of the foals born to tens of thousands of mares annually.
The heightened European demand for horse meat, due to the effects of mad cow and hoof-and-mouth disease has resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of horses slaughtered and has caused the price of horse meat to go up.
COMMENTS BY BARBARA SEAMAN, C0-FOUNDER OF THE NATIONAL WOMEN’S HEALTH NETWORK: Premarin, the most popular variety of hormone replacement therapy, was approved as a menopause treatment by the FDA on May 8, 1942. From 1991 to 1999, it was the best-selling drug in the United States. It is now number three, behind Synthroid and Lipitor.
The relationship between Premarin and animal rights presents a valuable model of how industry interests protect themselves on a grand scale without regard to community well-being.
In her article, “Pissing their Lives Away,” Susan Wagner writes about how Wyeth-Ayerst, the manufacturer of Premarin, has been exploiting and abusing horses for sixty years. Not just a clever name, Premarin is made from PREgnant MARes urINe.
While Wagner raises compelling points about the issue of animal abuse, perhaps the most revealing drug company strategy discussed involves Wyeth-Ayerst’s successful blockage of the approval of generic Premarin.
When a drug is approved, drug companies are granted a patent for a limited number of years before other, often smaller, companies are allowed to develop and market generic versions. By the mid-1990s, the patent on Premarin had sat in expiration for more than 25 years.
In 1997, a company called Duramed Pharmaceuticals applied for approval of a generic, soy-based, non-animal version of Premarin called Cenestin. Previous to this application, the only condition for generic approval was identical active ingredients.
A massive political battle ensued, with Wyeth-Ayerst exerting considerable financial pressure on powerful forces in Washington to intervene on their behalf. The result was the establishment of new, more ambiguous standards for generic drugs, in which testing for total active chemical similarity became the new measuring stick.
Since, in 50 years, not all the chemicals in Premarin had been adequately clarified, it would be difficult to determine generic “bio-equivalency.”
In rejecting Duramed’s application, the FDA specifically cited the absence of a chemical called DHES as essential to their conclusions. Previously qualified as an “impurity,” DHES was a little understood, animal-specific element present in Premarin.
Because the role of DHES in Premarin had not been documented, and Cenestin did not contain DHES, the FDA argued that generic approval would be impossible, despite the total lack of evidence that DHES has any active properties. Cenestin was approved shortly after as a new drug rather than a generic.
This outrageous triumph of economic and political influence over patient interests is typical of the tactics employed by drug companies to protect and promote their top-selling drugs. A generic, non-animal Premarin would be a great thing for HRT consumers.
It would provide a lower-priced drug for the same results. It would also begin the important process of converting to the consumption of non-animal estrogens.
Women continue to pay high prices (around $300 a year), and horses continue to suffer so that Wyeth Ayerst can continue to reap maximum benefits from a drug that for much of its sixty-year history has been one of the top ten drugs in the United States.
Given the new consensus in the scientific community that neither animal nor plant-based estrogen may be a healthy choice, perhaps 2002 will prove to be the year when the tide of the estrogen sea turns.
If so, perhaps the history of HRT will serve as a model for exposing and controlling corrupt drug company policies. It is a story waiting patiently but imperatively to be told.
Susan Wagner, “Pissing Their Lives Away: How the Drug Industry Harms Horses,” The Animals’ Agenda 21, no. 2, March/April 2001.
Faculty Evaluator: Wendy Ostroff
Student Researchers: Kelly Hand, Adam Cimino, Haley Mueller