Cargill halts purchases of cattle fed Zilmax

Published on: Aug 26, 2013

FOLLOWING on the heels of Merck Animal Health’s decision to temporarily suspend sales of its beta agonist Zilpaterol Hydrochloride – Zilmax – Cargill said it would also stop buying cattle finished on the embattled feed additive. The packer said it supported Merck’s commitment to research recent animal welfare concerns related to the product, and said the additional research was necessary.

In a statement on Cargill’s website, the company said that the last of the cattle in its supply chain currently being fed Zilmax will be harvested by the end of September, and that afterward it will be suspending purchase of Zilmax-fed cattle in North America, pending research being conducted by Merck. Cargill said the timing of its suspension will give producers adequate time to transition cattle currently being treated with Zilmax.

Tyson Fresh Meats announced Aug. 7 that it would suspend purchases of cattle finished on Zilmax, citing animal handling and lameness issues. Merck suspended sales of the product on Aug. 16, saying it was committed to helping producers use the product responsibly, and to researching what factors might be causing reported animal welfare issues.

Cargill, JBS and National Beef maintained their current policies on purchasing cattle fed beta agonists at that point, either by explicitly reiterating their intention to keep purchasing Zilmax-finished cattle – as was the case with Cargill – or in the case of JBS by simply not commenting at all.

“While Cargill has not linked Zilmax to any specific incidents involving animal well-being, the company does believe more research is necessary to answer recently raised questions regarding the use of this product,” the company said in a statement on its website. “Cargill believes Merck’s decision to suspend sales of Zilmax until additional research can be conducted is prudent.”

As part of its 5-step plan of action following Tyson’s move in early August, Merck has reached out to the industry on a variety of fronts, including the creation of a scientific advisory board. Cargill said that Dr. Mike Siemens, the company’s head of animal welfare and husbandry, will represent Cargill on that board.

Cargill resisted feeding Zilmax in the early days following the product’s U.S. debut in 2007, becoming the last major beef packer to allow Zilmax-fed cattle into its beef supply chain. The company said it took a full year to study Zilmax prior to accepting the additive in June 2012.

“One reason Cargill was initially reluctant to accept cattle fed Zilmax was a series of extensive beef tenderness tests that created concern about potential impact to product quality,” Cargill’s statement said. “During the years from 2006 to 2012, best practices were developed by the company’s cattle procurement and Research & Development teams to ensure product quality.”

Industry estimates on beta agonist usage suggest as many as 70-80% of the U.S. fed cattle herd was finished on Zilmax or Elanco’s Optaflexx (Ractopamine Hydrocholoride) in 2012. Cargill said its decision that year to accept Zilmax-fed cattle was based in part on the high percentage of cattle being fed beta-agonists, combined with a drought-depleted U.S. cattle herd, but stipulated that of the major U.S. beef packers, it harvests the smallest percentage of cattle fed Zilmax.

Reports have surfaced over the past week that producers switching from Zilmax to Optaflexx have encountered product shortages, though an Elanco spokesman specifically denied an outrage shortage, saying that the company was monitoring and managing its inventory to assess long-term market demand.