Digging Deeper


Zilmax maker suspends sales after welfare reports

(Courtesy of Merck Animal Health)
(Courtesy of Merck Animal Health)

For a second week in a row, the cattle industry has been surprised by announcements surrounding an increasingly controversial drug.

Merck & Co. said today it would suspend sales of Zilmax, a popular additive used to bulk up cattle just before slaughter. This follows last week’s statement by Tyson Foods that it would no longer buy cattle that had been treated with Zilmax, citing animal welfare issues.

Reinforcing the seriousness of these reports, the Food and Drug Administration told Reuters that it would work with Merck to review Zilmax and respond if there are any safety concerns.

At the heart of this story is an uptick in reports that cattle are so large they can’t walk. Some have reported that the animals are lame, lethargic and tender-footed – and those reports were backed up by a video shown at a beef industry conference in Denver recently.

Renowned veterinarian Temple Grandin, who pioneered humane slaughterhouse practices, told Reuters that the animals on the video looked like “90-year-old grandmothers.”

Merck announced that the drug is still safe, but added that the company would do a scientific audit to monitor the feeding and processing of cattle that had been fed Zilmax. From the company’s statement:

In support of our customers and to ensure effective implementation of our five-step plan, Merck Animal Health has made the decision to temporarily suspend sales of Zilmax in the United States and Canada. This will allow sufficient time for the establishment of valid study protocols, identification of feeders and packers to participate in the audit, and creation of a third-party team to oversee this process and validate its results.

Zilmax is the brand name for zilpaterol, which has been approved by the FDA for use in livestock. It’s a beta-agonist and acts as a steroid, turning fat into muscle, and can bulk up cattle another 30 pounds just before slaughter.

I filed a story for NPR on this issue last Friday, reporting that Tyson’s reasons for its decision might hinge more on attracting countries that have banned the use of these drugs.

In reporting that story, I asked Gary Mickelson, a Tyson spokesman, whether the company would no longer buy cattle that are treated with any growth promoters. One of Zilmax’s competitors is Optaflexx, another beta-agonist, and Next Enhance have both been mentioned as another option for growth promotion.

Mickelson said the decision was solely about Zilmax, so other drugs will presumably be used.

Among the other four largest U.S. beef companies, Cargill will still buy cattle that have been treated with Zilmax. Mike Martin, a Cargill spokesman, said the company began using the drug in the spring of 2012 and will continue to use it.

The two other companies, National Beef Packing Co., based here in Kansas City, and JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, will also continue to buy Zilmax-treated animals, according to the Wall Street Journal.

What do you think? Will you be watching labels at the grocery store and perhaps go with Tyson instead of other brands? Do you have food safety or animal welfare concerns about Zilmax? If you are a cattle producer, will this growing controversy hurt your bottom line?

We will continue to cover this story and would love your input. Drop me an email at peggy.lowe@harvestpublicmedia.org.