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Published August 19, 2013, 11:11 AM

Concern about growth drugs

A video showing clips of cattle struggling to walk was shown at a recent beef industry conference as part of a panel discussion on the pros and cons of using a class of drugs known as beta-agonists — the additives fed to cattle in the weeks before slaughter to add up to 30 pounds to bodyweight and reduce fat content in the meat.

By: P.J. Huffstutter and Lisa Baertlein, Reuters

At a recent beef industry conference in Denver, the animal health auditor for meat producer JBS USA presented a video showing short clips of cows struggling to walk and displaying other signs of distress. The animals appeared to step gingerly, as if on hot metal, and showed signs of lameness, according to four people who saw the video.

The people in attendance say the video was presented by Lily Edwards-Callaway, the head of animal welfare at JBS USA, as part of a panel discussion on the pros and cons of using a class of drugs known as beta-agonists — the additives fed to cattle in the weeks before slaughter to add up to 30 pounds to bodyweight and reduce fat content in the meat.

Edwards-Callaway told the audience the cattle had been fed a beta-agonist, but did not identify which brand. She also said various factors — including heat, transportation and animal health — may have contributed to the behavior seen on the video, according to JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett. He says the video showed cattle were “reluctant to move,” and told Reuters JBS wanted feedback from animal welfare experts, who were among those attending, on what JBS’s own staff had been seeing.

Reuters was unable to determine what feedback was received. Edwards-Callaway did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The video was shown on the same day the nation’s largest meat producer, Tyson Foods Inc., declared it would no longer accept cattle that had been fed the most popular brand of the feed additive, called Zilmax, a powerful and fast-selling product from pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. Tyson, in a letter to its cattle suppliers, says the decision resulted not from food-safety questions, but its concerns about the behavior of animals that animal health experts say could be connected to the use of Zilmax.

Video from JBS plant

No one from Tyson Foods viewed the video or knew of its existence before the company’s decision to stop buying Zilmax-fed cattle, according to Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson.

Zilmax and the Optaflexx brand of Eli Lilly Co.’s Elanco Animal Health unit dominate the beta-agonist market.

Merck says its own probe into the Tyson matter has shown Zilmax is not the cause of the animal behaviors seen at Tyson’s facilities, but declined to elaborate further. Merck spokeswoman Pamela Eisele says decades of product research have shown Zilmax is safe for animals, adding that Merck is working with Tyson to determine why Tyson has observed non-ambulatory or lame cattle at some of its beef plants.

The video was shot in recent months, Bruett says, with remote cameras used for auditing animal welfare at a single facility operated by JBS USA, which is a unit of JBS SA of Brazil. He declined to identify the facility’s location. The video was shown with the approval of officials of JBS USA, some of whom attended the presentation, Bruett says.

Guy Loneragan, a professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech University, who spoke at the Denver conference, describes the video as “compelling,” and says “it was clear that these cattle were lame.”

Loneragan, who serves as a food-safety adviser to JBS, says the cause of the animal distress in the video was not clear.

Temple Grandin, who has pioneered humane slaughterhouse practices as a consultant to several major beef processors, describes the short video clips she saw during the presentation. One clip showed an animal that did not want to move, and hands pushing it. Others showed cattle that looked stiff and lethargic, Grandin says.

Grandin says the cattle should have been energetic and moving on their own. Instead, the affected animals in the video “walk like they’re 90-year-old grandmothers.”

Drug makers react

The drug zilpaterol, the active ingredient in Zilmax, is stronger than other beta-agonists on the market, and debuted in 2007.

Merck’s chief rival in beta-agonists for cattle is Eli Lilly’s Elanco Animal Health unit, which makes ractopamine-based drugs for cattle, hogs and turkey. Elanco says it thinks Tyson’s concerns are specific to Zilmax, since Tyson continues purchasing animals fed Elanco’s Optaflexx.

Elanco says 48 research studies on more than 29,000 cattle showed “no difference in mortality, disease or other animal well-being related concerns” between animals fed Optaflexx and those that did not eat the Elanco drug.

Tyson says the company has seen problems in its own slaughterhouses similar to those described from the JBS video. The problems were infrequent yet common enough to warrant concern, Tyson’s Mickelson says.

Mickelson says the company does not know the cause of the problem. But he says independent veterinarians and animal welfare experts have told Tyson officials that Zilmax could be to blame.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows beef produced with beta-agonists to be labeled hormone-free, antibiotic-free and “natural,” as the drugs do not fall into the same class as either growth hormones or antibiotics.

Use of such pharmacology has been a topic of debate for more than a year in the U.S. cattle industry, where ranchers, feedlots and meat producers generally support the use of biotechnology to increase weight gain in cattle.