Antagonistic relationship

Aug 16, 2013

Live cattle markets finally moved off the six-week average of $119 last week when Tyson foods announced that they would not be buyers of cattle fed the beta-agonist Zilmax. The announcement came on Aug. 7 during the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) midyear conference in Denver. Tyson had been communicating their concerns over Zilmax to feeders over the past few months; however, the decision to not use the product by one of the nation’s largest meat packers sent a message across the entire beef chain. There has been much speculation that other beef packers would follow suit. None have to date.

Tyson’s concern about Zilmax was that the product was causing structural problems in the cattle along with other wellbeing issues they believed were related to the product.

The beta-agonist products were not questioned in general. Merck Animal Health’s “Zilmax,” though, was specifically identified as a problematic compound in regard to animal wellness issues. These products have been a concern for some time throughout the livestock industry because it was feared that the science would be ignored as the public would slowly learn about beta agonists in their beef and pork.

All the beta-agonist or ractopamine products have been blessed by the Food and Drug Administration as a safe product that posed no known side effects for human health or food safety. However, the super charged version “Zillmax” has been a concern. Many cattle feeders were absolutely not going to use the products a year and a half ago. Then negative feed margins became wide spread and forced feeders to change their view about ractopamine products; now they are using lots of the very expensive product.

The news of Tyson’s decision traveled through the industry very quickly. Ractopamine users have been concerned about the product’s perception for several years and possible public reactions over the product’s use. NCBA says ractopamine is on top of their issues management list, and they have been expecting some type of consumer backlash on the product’s use. Meat containing ractopamine has been banned for import by several countries, but these episodes are typically politically motivated.

Merck and NCBA are busy defending the science supporting the product’s safety for human consumption. Merck announced a five-step program, “Ensuring Responsible Beef,” that would re-certify all users of the product, audit the cattle’s health and wellbeing, and will also create an animal health advisory board.

Zilmax is fed during the last 20 to 40 days before processing the cattle. Its competitor is Optaflexx, produced by Elanco. Both products will add up to a half inch of rib eye to the carcass and produce more pounds of red meat yield and carcass weight. However, Zilmax requires a three-day withdrawal while Optaflexx doesn’t.

The industry’s skepticism about using the product has been widespread. It is no secret that it has created marketing issues for feeders and it has created product issues with meat packers. If there were reasonable margins for cattle feeders without using the product, I think they would prefer not to use it.

It reminds me of the BST milk production hormone, used by the dairy industry, which was developed by Monsanto. The product had a major backlash and dairymen quit using the product despite its economic advantages.

But Tyson’s decision doesn’t represent an industry-wide view of the product. All of the other packers say they have no plans to join in their opinion about Zilmax. Apparently, Tyson is not concerned about finding enough cattle to keep processing lines running efficiently as other packers are.

Problems have been identified with the use of Zilmax and it appears that the cattle feeders using the product will have to manage those cattle differently, which could create new challenges.

I respect Tyson for taking the high road on this developing beta-agonist issue. The general public apparently has not discovered the beef industry’s use of betaagonist and started asking questions. I’m sure that Tyson, along with other packers doesn’t want to have that discussion. But the beef industry has been preparing for it, and this topic, like others, has divided some in the industry over how to respond.

Tyson knows that if the product has a negative effect on animal wellbeing, it won’t be long before the animal rights groups join the debate. As a company, this would be an issue that I would prefer to avoid regardless of the benefits. — PETE CROW