Tyson stops buying cattle fed popular beta-agonist

Published on: Aug 7, 2013

Tyson Fresh MeatsIRONY: Less than four hours after the Beef Checkoff adjourned a symposium on the topic of beta-agonists, news surfaced that the country’s second-largest beef processor had banned one of two products fed to U.S. cattle. Tyson Fresh Meats, in a letter to cattle feeders, said they would no longer accept cattle fed zilpaterol as of Sept. 6, 2013.

Citing animal welfare concerns, Tyson said it would suspend purchases of cattle fed the supplement, marketed by Merck under the brand name Zilmax, as an interim measure while the company assess animal welfare concerns related to the additive.

“There have been recent instances of cattle delivered for processing that have difficulty walking or are unable to move,” the letter said. “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 is one possible cause.”

In a statement, Merck Animal Health reiterated that the benefits and safety of Zilmax are well documented. The company noted that the product has a 30 year history of research and development and rigorous testing, and that regulatory agencies around the globe have reviewed extensive data and concluded that use of Zilmax according to the label is safe in cattle.

"Merck Animal Health has offered technical assistance, both internal and external experts, to help Tyson to understand what is behind the instances at its facility," the company said. "Merck Animal Health is confident in the extensive research and data behind the product and the fact that its safety has been well demonstrated."

Beta-agonist products are only allowed in feed for the final 20-40 days on feed in cattle, according to federal regulations.

Welfare concerns: Anecdotal evidence or developing trend?

Beef industry leaders gathered in Denver, Colo., Wednesday for the Cattle Industry Summer Conference hosted by the Cattlemen’s Beef Board and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, spending the morning in an invitation-only symposium on the subject of beta-agonists. Welfare issues, described by some panelists as “anecdotal,” were among the key topics of discussion.

Lily Callaway, a member of JBS’ animal welfare team, told attendees that her company was also seeing increased incidences of ambulatory stress in steers delivered to the company’s processing facility. JBS may well be the nation’s largest beef packer following its January acquisition of XL Foods; Callaway said the company slaughters 18,000 head of fed cattle per day.

“Truck drivers have indicated that there is a difference between loading cattle depending on the beta-agonist status of the diet,” she explained. “Our plants have indicated that particular lots of cattle are showing up as ‘tender footed,’ they do not want to move, seem lethargic and stiff, and have no energy.”

Callaway, who completed her Ph.D. under widely-known animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, showed a video of stressed cattle unloaded at a JBS facility, depicting animals that did not respond with a typical flight response to workers’ attempts to move the animals through the facility, and appeared to move uncomfortably on their feet and legs.

Data compiled at two JBS facilities appeared to support Callaway’s comments on animal movement issues. In one example, of 8,000 head processed over 3 shifts, at least 20% were classified as “difficult to move,” 82% of which were fed beta-agonists. At least 35% of the cattle slaughtered at the facility during the reference time period were fed a beta-agonist.

In a second example, 4,300 head were processed over 2 shifts at a different JBS plant: 28% were “difficult to move,” and 92% of those were fed beta-agonists. Callaway said at least 47% of the cattle slaughtered in this time period were fed beta-agonists.

Similar observations appear to underline the Tyson decision.

“This is not a food safety issue,” the company’s letter to feeders concluded. “It is about animal well-being and ensuring the proper treatment of the livestock we depend on to operate.”

Headquartered in Dakota Dunes, S.D., Tyson Fresh Meats maintains 17 production sites throughout North America and employs nearly 41,000 workers.