By P.J. Huffstutter, Lisa Baertlein and Theopolis Waters
Aug 13 Pharmaceuticals giant, Merck and Co.,
facing questions from the cattle industry about the effects of
its Zilmax feed additive on the health of cattle, on Tuesday
responded with plans for a new quality control program to ensure
the popular weight-adding drug is properly used.
The news comes a week after Tyson Foods Inc. declared it
would stop accepting Zilmax-fed beef given some cattle were
observed arriving at its slaughter facilities with signs they
were having difficulty walking or moving.
Tyson Foods, the nation's largest meat processor said the
decision was not made over food-safety concerns, and the company
said it did not know exactly what was causing the animals
behavior, but Tyson officials said that animal health experts
have suggested that the use of Zilmax may be one possible cause.
That, in turn, has Tyson's cattle suppliers faced with a
choice of sticking with Zilmax and selling to other packers, or
switching to a less-powerful alternative feed supplement, or
even dropping the type of drug known as a beta-agonist such as
Beta-agonists are a class of drug approved and deemed safe
by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and long used by the
livestock industry to add weight to cattle, pigs and turkey in
the weeks before slaughter.
The class of drugs has come under scrutiny in recent months
over concerns by Tyson, and JBS USA, another large cattle
processor, when some animals were observed showing signs of
distress and had difficulty walking after being fed beta-agonist
additives. On Monday, Reuters reported that JBS USA's top animal
health executive, at an industry conference last week. showed a
video of cattle having difficulty moving and showing signs of
An FDA spokeswoman told Reuters Tuesday that the agency
requires drug companies to report adverse drug events to the
FDA. The agency declined to discuss whether it will investigate
reports of animal behavior publicly discussed by Tyson and JBS
in recent days.
While Tyson announced its change only last week, there are
some signs that the company has quietly been expanding its
supply of beef free of beta-agonists.
According to several feed lot operators interviewed by
Reuters, the company began paying some feeders premium prices
about six months ago to supply cattle that had not been fed
A feed operator in Kansas, who declined to be identified by
name because of concerns that "this could be a big political
issue," said he plans to discontinue Zilmax use and instead
exclusively use a competing beta-agonist, Eli Lilly & Co.'s
"The whole deal don't matter to me one way or the other
because their issue is not with Optaflexx," the cattle feeder
Herman Schumacher co-owner of L.D.L. Cattle Company, a
10,000 head privately-owned feedlot in Ipswitch, South Dakoa,
said he has raised cattle free of beta agonists since beginning
the business in 1986. Six months ago, he said, Tyson without any
explanation began offering him a premium on cattle that had
never consumed beta-agonists.
Schumacher said he expects Tyson's rivals to discontinue the
use of beta-agonists, too. "Other packers have not floated out
of this (Zilmax) yet, but with Tyson taking the lead on this I
think the others will follow," he said.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the beef
industry's trade group, said in a statement said its members
base their feed decisions "on science, not speculation. At this
time, there is no scientific basis for saying the use of
beta-agonists caused the animal welfare concerns cited by Tyson
in their decision to stop buying cattle fed Zilmax."
After Reuters' report Tuesday, Merck's animal health unit
said it will require cattle feeders that use its drug Zilmax to
undergo additional training as part of a five-step plan to deal
with mounting questions over possible negative effects from the
The company also said in the next 30 days it will re-certify
feed lot operators that use Zilmax, a process designed to make
certain customers safely use the drug when feeding cattle. Merck
also will launch what it termed a "scientific audit" that will
follow Zilmax-fed cattle from the feed yards to the packing
plant to determine potential causes of lameness and other
mobility issues seen by Tyson and JBS.