How an animal growth promoter is affecting overseas trade

Published: December 23 2013 | 7:28 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 1:12 am in
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DEC. 22, 2013

So I got my serious #agnerd geek on this month in looking at the continuing story in the beef industry about using a controversial growth promoter to bulk up cattle.

I’ve been watching this story since Tyson, one of the top four beef producers in the U.S., announced it would no longer be buying cattle treated with Zilmax, a drug that can add another 30 pounds on an animal just before slaughter.

Other companies soon followed – all citing scattered reports of animal welfare issues. Cattle treated with the drug became lame and lethargic, and there were problems at the packing houses. The drug’s maker, Merck Animal Health, pulled the drug and is now auditing its use.

So during a visit to Colorado, I stopped at Ordway Feedyard and talked to manager Tyler Karney. He runs an enormous feedlot out on the eastern plains – some 6,500 Holsteins on 2,000 acres. My story about Tyler’s use of Zilmax is here.

Now that it’s off the market, Tyler’s switched to Optaflexx – another growth promoter used to bulk up animals for more pounds and profits. Zilmax and Optaflexx are part of a family of drugs called beta-agonists – Zilmax in generic form is zilpaterol, Optaflexx is ractopamine.

Why are the beta-agonists interesting? Well, there are several billion reasons why – most of those about international trade.

Some 160 countries ban the use of beta-agonists in beef and pork production, most often because the countries determined the drug can affect human health, such as creating rapid heart rates. The bans have created several trade barriers, most recently when Russia refused any U.S. imports unless they are ractopamine-free.

So it certainly piqued my interest when last month, the USDA announced its new “never fed beta-agonist” certification. It’s the latest addition to the government’s program that includes other marketing claims, such as cage free, organic or free range.

So that could help open up some foreign markets again, right? Philip Karsting with the USDA’s foreign agricultural service told me that it’s hard to say.

“We don’t know until we figure out how many people are signing up for it, how soon they would make a transition to it and it still depends on how the Russians react to this beat-agonist free framework,” he said.

U.S. officials – and many in the cattle industry – bristle at the talk about banning beta-agonists, especially in Russia. As Karsting pointed out, there are already international standards for the use of beta-agonists. That was set in place in July 2012 by CODEX, which sets international standards for food, on what’s called acceptable “maximum residue levels.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem in the first place,” Karsting said. “But if we’re going to sell overseas, we’ll try to get people what they need, what they want, or what they think they need and want, and so that’s what this effort was about.”

What’s next in this story? I think it will be interesting to watch if Russia reacts and starts accepting U.S. grown beef. And I wonder if consumers will care about this issue. Would there ever be a “never fed beta-agonist” label? Again, hard to say.

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