USDA unveils 'never fed beta agonist' certification

Published on: Nov 7, 2013

EARLIER this week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service updated its Quality System Verification Program to include a new “Never Fed Beta Agonists” marketing claim. Companies under federal inspection can obtain the claim through either a USDA Process Verified Program or Quality System Assessment by submitting a documented program that meets AMS guidelines under the claim, and is audited and approved.

The new marketing claim could help U.S. beef exporters reenter the lucrative Russian market, closed since February over beta agonist issues.

“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 that require verification of a marketing claim that the meat is derived from animals that were never fed beta agonists and is free of beta agonist residues,” AMS said in a Nov. 4 update.

Industry sources speculated that trade with Russia was a key factor in Tyson’s decision earlier this year to halt purchases of cattle finished on the popular feed additive Zilmax (Merck’s zilpaterol hydrochloride), though the company has maintained its concerns were based on observed animal welfare issues. Cargill followed suit in prohibiting the additive from its cattle supply, and Merck eventually suspended sales of the product.

Zilmax, however, was not the specific issue relative to Russian trade – rather, the country halted purchases from the U.S. on concerns stemming from use of ractopamine, Elanco’s beta agonist product sold under the name OptaFlexx in the U.S. cattle market.

With a “never fed beta agonist” claim now available, however, packers hoping to sell beef to Russia again may have an outlet that allows them to work around the issue, while giving Russia an out in trade negotiations with the U.S. Companies such as Tyson and Cargill could presumably obtain the right to use the USDA marketing claim and export certified product to Russia to fulfill the 2014 quota of 60,000 metric tons announced Nov. 6.

While Russia's veterinary officials have not specifically said they are lifting the ban on U.S. imports, the announcement of the quota, taken in tandem with the AMS announcement, could mean that the end of the ban is in sight. The U.S. Meat Export Federation told reporters Nov. 6 that Russian officials might tour U.S. beef and pork processing plants in February as a key step in reestablishing trade.

“It would likely take 4 to 6 months to fill this quota,” said analyst Dennis Smith with Archer Financial. “More competition for less beef means higher prices. In my opinion the cash steer market will be trading at $135 [per cwt.] by the end of this year.”

The two potentially bigger questions for the industry are how the marketing claim might play out in the domestic market – consumers have not overwhelmingly shown a concern over beta agonists, according to survey data from Oklahoma State University economist Jayson Lusk – and how the new claim might affect pork trade with Russia.