Beef cattle have gotten bigger and bigger due to drugs including Zilmax, which is made by Intervet, a subsidiary of Merck. The average steer sent to a packing plant now weighs 1,300 pounds; in 1975, their average weight was 1,000 pounds. As an April 15th article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reports, a number of animal scientists at public universities help, and are paid by, pharmaceutical companies to advise and persuade farmers and ranches to use Zilmax, antibiotics, hormones and other drugs. The animal scientists and the companies have profited handsomely, even while the effects of these drugs on animals, and on humans, are unknown.
A 2005 survey found that more than two-thirds of animal scientists said they had received money from the industry in the past five years. The money comes not only in the form of research grants that, more and more, pay for “overhead and administrative costs,” but in payments to animal science professors in the form of fees as consultants and speakers.
As the Chronicle of Higher Education notes, while administrators at medical schools around the U.S. have “recently tightened rules to better police their faculty’s ties to pharmaceutical companies,” schools of agriculture have discounted and even rejected criticism about their too-close ties to pharmaceutical companies.
Zilmax could possibly turn the tide. The drug (which Intervet was charging $8,300 per 10-kilogram bag in January) makes cattle so bulked up that the quality of the beef from them has dramatically declined. It is further evidence that animal scientists advocating for the use of such drugs are more in sync with pharmaceutical companies than with farmers, ranchers and their animals:
Meat from the most pharmaceutically enhanced cattle (especially those given Zilmax)can be so tough that some packing plants are refusing to buy cattle fed the drug. Some cattlemen and beef-industry executives have also begun to speak out. They warn that continued use of the drug may make ranchers’ herds difficult to sell, and end up hurting the image of American beef….
Cargill won’t buy cattle that it knows have been fed zilpaterol, he said, using the drug’s generic name. Cargill’s view is that an overly aggressive focus on growth “can have an impact on the consumer attributes of size, quality, and tenderness,” he said. “So we need to find a balance. The message there is that we ask you to be careful.”
Paul Heinrich, an executive of Sysco, the global food distributor, has offered similar criticism about the “Frankenbeef” from cattle on Zilmax; butchers struggle to cut up extra-large carcasses. Ray Bozzacco, meat manager for the Meijer’s supermarket chain in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says simply that “bigger isn’t always better.” In a 2005 beef-industry survey, restauranteurs and food executives complained about “heavy carcasses, inappropriately-sized rib-eyes, and tough steaks that lacked the marbled fat that gives them flavor.”
Few academics offer such warnings, notes the Chronicle of Higher Education. Indeed, Ty E. Lawrence, an associate professor of animal science at West Texas A&M University, and Bradley J. Johnson, a professor of meat science and muscle biology at Texas Tech University, have both written scientific articles about Zilmax with company employees. A 2010 article in the Journal of Animal Science by Lawrence was a review of previously published research — much of it financed by Intervet — on the drug. Moreover, he was the highest-paid associate professor at his university last year, making $101,000 (as compared to the median salary for associate professors there of $60,000).
The effects of drugs like Zilmax on the cattle, and on human beings who eat beef from animals given it, are yet unknown. The FDA has received at least six reports detailing how one or more cattle died after eating feed mixed with Zilmax, says the Chronicle of Higher Education. Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has reported that “Zilmax and Optaflexx appear to cause cattle to become heat stressed and go lame, especially on hot days,” after observing animals in a slaughterhouse.
If so many animal scientists are in, as it were, the pay of pharmaceutical companies, there need to be far more regulations about such relationships, for the sake of consumers and, certainly, of the animals themselves.
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