USDA unveils new beta agonist-free certification

Nov 18, 2013

Beef and pork exports took a hit earlier this year, after Russia’s refusal to accept exports fed betaagonists, and the topic surfaced again this fall, following Tyson’s ban on the feed additive. But a new USDA certification program for livestock producers may permit them to market their products with a special “Never Fed Beta Agonists” label.

The feed additive, used to increase muscle mass and promote weight gain, has been banned or restricted in Russia, South Korea, China and Taiwan. Beta agonists are approved for use in the United States, Mexico, Canada and South Africa.

In February, 2013, Russia banned all imports of meat containing ractopamine and now only allows pork and beef into the country providing it is free of any traces of the drug. The value of U.S. beef exports to Russia in 2012 alone was estimated at $300 million.

“Although Russia’s position on ractopamine has been on the books for some time, they really only started enforcing it last fall,” Thad Lively, Senior Vice President for trade access with the U.S. Meat Export Federation, told reporters. “Russia contends that it closed the market because the U.S. government did not come forward with a program for shipping beef from cattle that hadn’t been fed racto pamine.

Russia has imposed new requirements and restrictions on beef from other suppliers, as well, but the extreme step of closing the market only applies to the U.S.”

Trademarked beta agonists include Zilmax and Optaflexx. Merck Animal Health pulled Zilmax off the market in August of this year after animal welfare concerns surfaced during an industry conference, and the company is in the process of auditing the product.

Just before Merck suspended sales of Zilmax, Tyson Foods announced that, starting Sept. 6, it would no longer buy any cattle given Zilmax.

“We do not know the specific cause of these problems, but some animal health experts have suggested that the use of the feed supplement Zilmax, also known as zilpaterol, is one possible cause,” Tyson officials stated in a letter to U.S. feedlot operators.

Cargill followed Tyson’s move shortly after, refusing Zilmax-fed beef into the Cargill supply chain “until we are 100 percent confident the animal welfare issues are resolved.”

Cargill told Reuters its ban on Zilmax applies both to beef it processes, as well as to cattle in its own feedlots. In addition, Cargill said it will not use Zilmax-fed beef “until Asia and other trading partners accept it in their markets.”

Professor Temple Grandin, Colorado State University, said that the potential welfare problem dates back as far as the summer of 2006.

After observing animals at three slaughter plants from three different feedlots, she noticed what she considered an “odd combination of lameness and heat stress.”

“All the animals were clean, with smooth coats and no coughing or runny noses,” she wrote about her research.

The animals’ condition led her to question what changes had occurred in the industry in previous years that might lead to the problems—and ractopamine was relatively new. But she also notes that growing and fattening cattle more quickly to reach market weights quicker could also be a factor.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been working with Merck and USDA to assess the safety issues of the additive.

In December, 2012, animal rights and food safety groups sent a 37-page petition to the FDA, requesting they lower the approved residue limit on ractopamine.

“The continued use and abuse of ractopamine in our food supply needs to be put in check,” said Elisabeth Holmes, staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety.

USDA’s recent Quality Systems Verification Program’s Never Fed Beta Agonists Program came out last week, with little to no pomp and circumstance.

According to USDA, the program provides companies that supply agricultural products and services the opportunity to assure customers of their ability to provide consistent quality products or services, possibly opening the door to closed markets.

The Never Fed Beta Agonists marketing claim is available to companies that produce livestock and beef and pork products, and submit marketing programs to the Livestock, Poultry and Seed (LPS) Program for verification and monitoring.

Companies have the option to meet the requirements of the Never Fed Beta Agonists marketing claim under either a USDA Process Verified Program (PVP) or the USDA Quality System Assessment (QSA) Program. The requirements for these programs are defined in the USDA Process Verified Program GVD 1001 Procedure, USDA Process Verified Program and the USDA Quality System Assessment Program GVD 1002.

To operate an approved Never Fed Beta Agonists marketing program, a company must submit a documented program that meets the program requirements outlined in GVD 1007 Procedure, as well as either the GVD 1002 Procedure for QSA applicants, or the GVD 1001 for PVP applicants.

Beef and pork meat and meat products derived from animals that meet the requirements to be labeled as Never Fed Beta Agonists are eligible for customers who require verification of a marketing claim that the meat is derived from animals never fed beta agonists and is free of beta agonist residues.

More information on the program can be found at: AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName =STELPRDC5105492 — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor