Kay's Korner

Aug 30, 2013

Blind eye over Zilmax

The Zilmax story is still unfolding. But years from now, it should be taught as a cautionary tale of how the best intentions can go awry. Merck Animal Health, which makes the feed supplement, had spent 30 years developing and testing the product. But this wasn’t enough for cattle well-being issues to emerge that caused Tyson Foods to make its announcement that it would no longer buy cattle fed Zilmax after September 6.

Other packers initially said their buying practices would not change. But Merck’s subsequent decision to pull Zilmax off the market while it conducts an extensive audit gave the packers cover to say they are also stopping buying Zilmax-fed cattle. JBS USA will do so from September 23 and Cargill from the end of the month.

August’s events were startling but not a shock in light of Zilmax’s history. Merck touted Zilmax as a new technology to help cattle feeders make more money and the industry to produce more beef per animal.

Both arguments seemed irresistible. The product came on the market as cattle feeders faced $8 per bushel corn prices and as industry leaders were starting to develop strategies to improve the industry’s sustainability. So cattle feeders began to use Zilmax. Many in the industry however turned a blind eye to two key concerns about Zilmax. A third was the diminution of the cash live cattle market, which I wrote about in my July 1 column (WLJ Vol. 92, No. 39).

Zilmax’s benefits were and are well-known. It can add 24 to 33 pounds of live weight to fed steers and heifers in their last 20 days of time on feed. It is said to add 1.4 percent in a carcass’s dressing percentage.

It is said to double the percentage of carcasses that grade Yield Grade 1 and halve the percentage of Yield Grade 4s and 5s. So it produces leaner beef.

There were concerns however about its effect on tenderness. The Certified Angus Beef (CAB) program expressed such concerns in October 2010, citing feedback from some of its restaurant customers. But Merck reiterated the results of its tenderness tests on Zilmax-produced beef, saying Zilmax had no impact on tenderness. Cargill also expressed concerns over tenderness after conducting thousands of tests.

Concerns also arose about Zilmax’s impact on cattle well-being. World-renowned animal handling specialist Dr. Temple Grandin raised eyebrows when she stated such concerns. But she saw well-being issues from the start. In the September 2013 issue of Meat&Poultry magazine, Grandin wrote:

“When beta-agonists first came on the market, I observed some strange new problems in fed cattle when they arrived at the packing plant. Brahman crosses, Holsteins and many other types of cattle had occasional lots where, on hot summer days, cattle arrived that were stiff and sore footed. A few animals went down and had severe heat stress symptoms. Many people said my reports were just anecdotal.”

Despite these concerns, most cattle feeding operations began to use Zilmax.

Packers were more reluctant to accept Zilmax-fed cattle but all were by spring last year. These uptakes meant that in 2012, an estimated 70 percent of all the cattle on feed in the U.S. were being fed either Zilmax or Optaflexx, another beta-agonist. Some estimates are that their use by July this year was split 50/50. Merck says that its Zilmax sales in the U.S. and Canada in 2012 totaled $159 million.

Perhaps because of this widespread use, concerns persisted about how Americans might perceive Zilmax’s use. While beta-agonists are deemed safe for animals and humans, some in the industry feared the social media might start blogging about “cattle on steroids” or spread some other distorted story about their use. Some industry leaders deemed Zilmax’s use a “ticking time bomb.”

They had good reason to be concerned, given the social media’s destruction last year of Beef Products Inc’s lean finely textured beef product.

Tyson helped defuse that time bomb with its decision, based on the very issues that Grandin had observed years earlier. How long Merck’s suspension of Zilmax sales will last is anyone’s guess. For now, cattle feeders will move to using more Optaflexx and feed cattle to heavier weights as corn prices decline. Whether Zilmax is used again might depend on several factors, including: whether Merck eventually deems it safe at lower usage levels; whether the beef industry feels it can achieve carcass productivity gains without its use; whether the social media takes up the Zilmax story or not.

The most critical factor however might be the industry’s attitude to beef quality. Apart from tenderness issues, Zilmax produces larger cuts that are more difficult to merchandise in grocery stores and restaurants. The industry needs to keep improving beef’s overall quality if it expects consumers to keep paying more for it. Zilmax might not fit in that future. — Steve Kay (Steve Kay is Editor/Publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, an industry newsletter published at P.O. Box 2533, Petaluma, CA, 94953; 707/765-1725. Kay’s Korner appears exclusively in WLJ.)