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These Drugs Fatten Up Cattle and Make It Painful to Walk

These Drugs Fatten Up Cattle and Make It Painful to Walk

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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8:58PM PDT on Jul 1, 2015


5:10AM PDT on Jun 29, 2015

These drugs cause the animals to put on 30lb in a week and then people eat the meat. Do you think we may have found the cause of all this obesity? I think they are banned in Europe.

4:42AM PDT on Jun 27, 2015

Frank P - consumers aren't stupid, they know exactly what's going on. They just pretend to be stupid so they can carry on buying cheap meat and any money left over can go on luxuries. Other consumers couldn't care less - "stupid animals are here for our benefit" type of mentality!!

lesley t - it's legal because most senators and/or governors own cattle ranches or have a vested interest in them.

It goes on in every country, even India where killing cows is illegal, India has quite a number of tanneries that the government ignores. Why? Because leather goods made for the West are big business for the government.

If you want change, target the government relentlessly until they hear you.

2:56PM PDT on Jun 25, 2015

We're such noble beings. So kind to our fellow creatures.

4:54AM PDT on Jun 15, 2015

Inhumane and selfish

8:51AM PDT on Sep 1, 2014

How is this even legal in the first place?

9:14PM PDT on Aug 21, 2014

Very sad.

1:42AM PST on Mar 5, 2014

Thank you

3:59PM PST on Feb 27, 2014

Poor cows; another of many reasons to go vegan.

11:26AM PST on Nov 22, 2013

Truth is this country cares more about corporations than its people, and little or nothing for its "food" animals. If the U.S. cared, they would not allow us to eat what the rest of the world will not. And there would be laws to protect the billions of animals raised for food but there are not. Something is VERY wrong here. We should ALL be outraged and rise up, whether we eat meat or not. GREED is killing us all.

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