DALLAS Nov 3 For more than a century, ranchers
and their kids have paraded cattle around the dusty show ring at
the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, in a rite of passage that is
part farm economics, part rural theater.
Today, with U.S. auction prices for champion cattle topping
$300,000 a head and hefty scholarship checks for winners at
stake, the competitive pressures are intense. It's no wonder
animals with names like Beast or Chappie get the farm version of
luxury spa pampering - shelter from summer heat, baths with
pricey shampoos and careful coiffing with electric razors.
Many also get muscle-building livestock drugs added into
animal feed. While performance-boosting drugs are banned today
in most human sports competitions, Zilmax and other drugs of a
type called beta-agonists are federally approved and generally
allowed on the livestock-show circuit.
For many contestants the secret weapon of choice is Zilmax,
a controversial feed additive sold by Merck & Co.
Zilmax-based feeds can give show kids an edge in the headline
competition for market-ready steers and heifers, say show
sponsors and competitors. They add thicker meat where judges
like it most, between the 12th and 13th ribs, where rib-eye
steaks come from.
Merck temporarily suspended Zilmax sales in the United
States and Canada in August, soon after the largest U.S. meat
processor, Tyson Foods Inc, stopped accepting Zilmax-fed
cattle for slaughter over animal welfare concerns. After Merck
last week said it was preparing to return Zilmax to the market,
food giant Cargill Inc declared it would bar
Zilmax-fed animals from its supply chain until it was "100
percent confident" those issues are resolved.
But in cattle shows at state and county fairs across the
farm belt, Zilmax remains popular. Despite the halt in sales of
Merck's zilpaterol - Zilmax is the trade name - existing
stockpiles of Zilmax-based show feeds circulated at fairs this
fall. So, too, did products made with Optaflexx, a rival drug by
Eli Lilly & Co.'s Elanco Animal Health group that is
based on ractopamine, also a beta-agonist.
Ractopamine has not been tied to the animal welfare issues
seen in cattle this year.
"If it's legal, you use all of your options," said Justana
Tate, 17, a Texas state fair competitor, her championship belt
buckle gleaming as she stroked her snorting steer to calm him.
Tate is a Zilmax fan. "I think it's a fabulous product," she
For drug giant Merck, the show-feed market is a tiny slice
of Zilmax's U.S. sales, roughly $160 million last year. The U.S.
Food and Drug Administration considers Zilmax safe for animals
and humans, though regulators say it requires labels warning
people not to inhale the drug or handle it without gloves.
Zilpaterol can cause dizziness and shortness of breath when
inhaled and cause rashes upon contact with bare skin, according
to Merck and the FDA.
While the drugs remain popular with contestants, some show
organizers are cracking down by testing for zilpaterol, the
active ingredient in Zilmax. The organizers say they are taking
their cues from the FDA, which has approved zilpaterol for use
in steers and heifers slated for slaughter but bars it for use
in breeding cattle and dairy cows as well as goats, pigs, sheep
Many of the fresh-faced kids who compete at cattle shows
have seen beta-agonists on their family farms or feedlots.
Full-strength Zilmax, when added to feed weeks before slaughter,
can add about 30 pounds of muscle to the average 1,300-pound
When those children begin competing, some reach for
medicated show feeds, which are readily available at rural feed
stores and via the Internet, say competitors and show
Merck does not make show feeds. Instead, feed mills blend
the company's Zilmax with protein, fat, fiber or other products,
and then market the mix under trade names like Showmaxx, Power
Champ and Zillarator. The Zilmax in show feeds is far less
potent than what is fed to commercial cattle but still adds
muscle definition, show participants say.
In some cases, manufacturers distribute free samples of
medicated feed to youth development groups 4-H or Future Farmers
of America, said Richard Sellers, the American Feed Industry
Association's vice president for nutrition and feed regulation.
The practice is legal - and pragmatic.
"You want them to buy feed when they grow up,"
Zilmax has not been implicated in any human health problems,
according to Merck and a review of FDA records. Only one adverse
drug event has been reported to regulators, in which a person
who inhaled the drug reported pain, vomiting and difficult
According to the FDA, makers of Zilmax-based show feed
products are required to list safe-handling instructions - and
tell people to wear appropriate masks, gloves and eye protection
when scooping it out to feed to their cattle.
Merck includes an FDA-mandated user safety warning on its
Zilmax labels. Merck said it shares the wording of the labels
with companies that buy Zilmax from Merck to use as an
ingredient in their products.
The FDA requires any product containing Zilmax to carry this
user safety warning, according to FDA officials.
In 2012, regulators found that a popular Zilmax show product
called Showmaxx was made in a federally unlicensed feed mill and
lacked safe-handling instructions on its packaging. Showmaxx
marketer XF Enterprises, a nutrition consulting firm in
Amarillo, Texas, last year voluntarily recalled Showmaxx. The
company did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
But the FDA leaves labeling oversight to state regulators,
and state officials in cattle-heavy Texas and elsewhere told
Reuters the federal Food and Safety Act does not clearly state
that such cautionary warnings on these lower-dosage products are
required. The FDA disagrees. In practice, feed products have
been approved for sale without safe-handling instructions.
When Reuters this fall purchased a Zilmax-based feed called
Zillarator over the Internet, the product arrived in a plastic
bucket that bore no safe-handling instructions.
Likewise for another Zilmax-based additive called Power
Champ. Manufacturer Suther Feeds Inc of Frankfort, Kansas, said
it consulted with Merck on the language used for its label. A
state regulator later approved the product's labeling. Merck
said in a statement that it provided a copy of a standard label
template, including the safe-handling language, to Suther Feed.
Michael Johll, chief operating officer of Suther Feeds, said
his company adhered to state and federal rules. "If there's
something that we've failed to do, we'll do it. I don't believe
we have," Johll said.
WINNER'S CIRCLES AND DRUG TESTS
At the Texas state fair, champion steers routinely fetch
six-figure prices at auctions held just after winners' belt
buckles are handed out. The same goes for the recent American
Royal livestock show in Kansas City, Missouri, or the National
Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado, in January.
Slaughterhouses and agribusiness firms often buy the winning
steers and market heifers to burnish their brands and encourage
youngsters' farming careers. After that, the animals are
The zeal at livestock shows can run so hot that there have
been drug abuse allegations in the past, though Zilmax has not
During the 1990s and 2000s, scandals roiled shows in Ohio,
Missouri, Colorado and elsewhere when some champion livestock
tested positive for clenbuterol, a muscle builder that leaves
toxic residues in meat. Now, drug tests are common at livestock
shows, with malefactors who use growth hormones, steroids or
other unapproved drugs facing lifetime bans.
At the Texas state fair last month, collecting a urine
sample from a 1,329-pound champion steer named Corndog requires
a certain amount of finesse. But veterinarian Dick Shepherd and
his animal-health team armed themselves with funnels, specimen
cups and patience.
"If you're going to let them use anything they want to you
end up with everyone using drugs rampantly," Shepherd said. He
was not testing Corndog or other steer for zilpaterol, since the
drug has been approved for cattle.
Some parents and cattle ranchers want beta-agonist use
banned at shows. Arizona rancher Harvey Dietrich, co-founder of
advocacy group Beef Additive Alert, said the shows are fueling a
culture of short-cuts.
But Daryl Real, vice president of the Texas state fair's
agriculture and livestock department, shrugs off concerns. The
FDA allows Zilmax in beef cattle heading to grocery stores, he
reasoned, so contestants should learn to use it, too.
Real said most contestants use Zilmax responsibly: Even in
Texas, judges don't want steers to be too big.
"I liken it to the way I like whipped cream on a dessert,"
Real said. "A little bit goes a long way. You can have too much
whipped cream and ruin the dish."
TO USE AND NOT TO USE
Supplies of Zilmax show feeds have dwindled since Merck's
sales suspension in August. Even so, some Zilmax-based products
are still being sold online, and several show contestants told
Reuters they had stockpiled their favorite feed additive after
At the Sandwich Fair in DeKalb County, about an hour west of
Chicago, this September, Kendall Nelson, 14, said he was using a
Zilmax-based feed this show season.
His father, Philip Nelson - a cattle rancher and president
of the Illinois Farm Bureau - said he does not use beta-agonist
drugs on his livestock. But the younger Nelson began
experimenting based on advice from a livestock nutritionist, the
The youngster's steers rapidly grew - though they fell short
of winning blue ribbons at this year's Illinois State Fair.
"It's not dangerous," said Philip Nelson. "If it was, the
government wouldn't let it be put it out for sale without a
Some young competitors say they'd rather win without Zilmax.
Ten-year-old Saige Martin of Hereford, Texas, raised her
steer Corndog free of beta-agonists, said her father, show
cattle breeder Brian Martin.
Corndog's closest competitor was a 1,318-pound cross-breed
steer named Rojo, and 16-year-old Caitlen Doskocil of Holland,
Texas, used a ractopamine feed "to stout him up," said
Caitlen's father, Doyle Doskocil. The family's supply of a
Zilmax-based feed had run out, he said.
Inside the Texas state fair show ring, Corndog - named after
the popular American snack because of his coloring - towered
over Saige, whose cool smile masked her jitters. A judge slowly
circled the steer and ran his hands over the back, feeling for a
thick padding of muscle.
Corndog impressed, and later was named Grand Champion steer.
At auction, he sold for $110,000, a fair record.
Saige got a $30,000 check for her college fund - after
Corndog passed his drug test.