Beta-agonists are drugs that were originally developed to help people with asthma and are now given to cattle to make them grow faster in a shorter period of time to “produce more beef with fewer cattle.” A recent video of “lame” cattle fed such drugs raises concerns about the safety of beta-agonists for animals and, also, for humans who eat beef from them.
Beef from cattle fed drugs such as Merck’s Zilmax and Optaflexx from Eli Lilly Co’s Elanco Animal Health can be labeled as hormone-free and antibiotic-free because, under U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines, beta-agonists are not growth hormones or antibiotics. Such meat can also be labeled “natural,” which seems rather inaccurate, given that animals fed beta-agonists in the weeks before they are slaughtered add thirty pounds to their body weight; the drugs also reduce the fat content of the beef.
In other words, beta-agonists are made to order for companies like Tyson and Cargill who produced more than 26 billion pounds of meat last year from 91 million cattle. In contrast, 111 million head of cattle produced 21 billion pounds of beef back in 1952.
Cattle Seen Walking as if On Hot Metal
Dr. Lily Edwards-Callaway, the head of animal welfare at JBS USA, showed the video on August 7 at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. The cattle could be seen “struggling to walk and displaying other signs of distress” and seeming to “step gingerly, as if on hot metal,” says Reuters.
Edwards-Callaway noted that “heat, transportation and animal health” could have played a part in the cattle appearing to be lame.
Major U.S. Beef Producer Stops Feeding Cattle Zilmax
Companies have already been having second thoughts about using beta-agonists: on the same day as Edwards-Callaway showed the video, Tyson Foods, the second-largest producer of beef in the U.S., announced that it would suspend purchases of cattle fed Zilmax. Tyson specifically cited “recent instances of cattle delivered for processing that have difficulty walking or [being] unable to move” and noted that “some animal health experts have suggested that the use of the feed supplement Zilmax is one possible cause.”
Zilmax is Merck’s brand name for zilpaterol, which is “stronger than other beta-agonists on the market,” says Reuters. Another such drug is ractopamine, the active ingredient in Optaflexx, sold by Merck’s rival Lilly; Tyson is still purchasing cattle who have been fed Optaflexx.
There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about this drug, too. Russia and China have banned meat imports from ractopamine-fed animals. Eager to gain a share of China’s lucrative market for pork, U.S.-based Smithfield Foods announced in May that it would stop feeding ractopamine to half its pig herd. As Reuters points out, “weeks later, China’s Shuanghui International announced plans to buy Smithfield.”
“Power Tools” to “Finish Cattle”
A publication for cattlemen, Cattle Network refers to beta-agonists as the “power tools for finishing cattle.” The drugs could be called such but it goes without saying, if they’re making cattle sick, they should not be used. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently says that beta-agonists are “safe” for animals; it approved Zilmax for use back in 2006. These latest reports of disabled cattle are more than reason for the FDA and the USDA to reevaluate the use of beta-agonists as well as antibiotics and other drugs used on cattle as a whole and ban them.
Cattle Network says that, by not giving cattle Zilmax in their feed, the animals weigh less. That’s hardly a surprise; the cattle were never meant to weigh as much as they’ve been made to due to being fed those “power tools.” If China (a country which does not exactly have an illustrious record about regulating food safety) is rejecting meat fed beta-agonists, why is the United States still allowing such drugs to be used?
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