OCT. 09, 2013
South Korea has cut off beef imports from a facility owned by a Colorado meatpacker after finding a controversial growth enhancer in the meat.
It’s the latest chapter in the saga of Zilmax, a feed additive blamed for bulking up cattle to an unhealthy degree. Reports have come in showing cattle with sore feet and stressed by heat. Some animals were so tender-footed and large they could barely walk.
Korean food inspectors tested a 22-ton shipment of beef from Greeley, Colo.-based JBS USA and found traces of zilpaterol, marketed as Zilmax by Merck, the pharmaceutical company that makes the additive. Merck has suspended sales of Zilmax while further research is done to see if there is a connection between Zilmax and lameness in cattle.
Many European and Asian countries, including South Korea, have banned the use of feed additives like Zilmax, or its cousin, Optaflexx, made by Eli Lilly’s Elanco Animal Health, another pharmaceutical company.
But many other countries have not and simply have no standards or guidelines for what’s acceptable and what’s not. The World Trade Organization offers some guidelines for food safety and animal welfare, but with fast-changing food technology, it’s hard to keep up.
“What ends up happening in international markets is that you have different counties with a lack of harmonized policies. It’s the next great artificial trade barrier, for any country,” said Keith Belk, a professor in Colorado State University’s Center for Meat Safety and Quality.
So far, Tyson and Cargill, two of the largest meatpackers in the world stopped buying cattle that were fed Zilmax. A few days ago the Chicago Mercantile Exchange put in a place a similar policy, refusing to accept Zilmax-treated cattle. With Zilmax off the market, other beef producers like JBS USA are now without the feed additive and unable to feed it to cattle, though JBS didn’t outright say they were against using Zilmax, just that supplies had run out.
Some cattle ranchers and feedlot owners say the removal of Zilmax has been a detriment to their business. It helped speed along the process of raising a cow for beef, and do it cheaply. The cattle industry now competes with ethanol makers for corn. Rising corn prices have made it tougher to feed cattle in a way that makes economic sense.
Merck is currently conducting an audit of Zilmax, examining how producers are using the additive. It’s unclear when or if Zilmax will return to market.
This article is brought to you in collaboration between The Gazette and Harvest Public Media.
Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration of several Midwestern public media stations, including Iowa Public Radio.
Harvest's multimedia work — appearing on radio, TV, and in print and online outlets — explores issues related to food and food production.
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