NOT even four hours after the beef checkoff adjourned a symposium on the topic of beta-agonists, news surfaced that Tyson Fresh Meats, the country's second-largest beef processor, had banned one of two beta-agonist products fed to U.S. cattle.
In a letter to cattle feeders, Tyson said it would no longer accept cattle fed zilpaterol hydrochloride as of Sept. 6.
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 assesses 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 says. "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 zilpaterol are well documented. The company noted that the product has a 30-year history of research, development and rigorous testing, and regulatory agencies around the globe have reviewed extensive data and concluded that use of the product according to label directions 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."
Beef industry leaders gathered last Wednesday in Denver, Colo., for the Cattle Industry Summer Conference, hosted by the Cattlemen's Beef Board and National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA), and spent 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 the JBS animal welfare team, told attendees that her company is also seeing increased incidences of ambulatory stress in steers delivered to its 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 doctorate under animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, showed a video of stressed cattle unloaded at a JBS facility. It depicted 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 support Callaway's comments on animal movement issues. In one example of 8,000 head processed over three shifts, at least 20% were classified as "difficult to move," 82% of which had been fed a beta-agonist. At least 35% of the cattle slaughtered at the facility during the reference time period were fed a beta-agonist.
In a second example of 4,300 head processed over two shifts at a different JBS plant, 28% were "difficult to move," and 92% of those had been fed a beta-agonist. Callaway said at least 47% of the cattle slaughtered in this time period were fed beta-agonists.
Similar observations appear to underline Tyson's 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.
Beta-agonists are chemical compounds used to alter metabolism in a way that markedly stimulates muscle protein synthesis and muscle growth. Put simply, animals fed beta-agonists generally gain more pounds of lean muscle with the same or fewer pounds of feed.
Beta-agonist products are allowed in feed for cattle for only the final 20-40 days on feed, according to federal regulations.
Panelists at the industry symposium discussed the various issues surrounding their use, ranging from potential carcass quality issues — particularly tenderness and reduced marbling — to consumer perception and animal welfare. When asked specifically about the continued use of these products, the speakers generally supported farmers' and ranchers' right to choose whether to feed beta-agonists but also tended to agree that more research is needed.
NCBA senior vice president Bo Reagan told the audience that the organization had convened a working group to review the currently available scientific literature and to discuss and consider areas for further study. The group has been working on the issue since April, and NCBA said it has "expended significant resources to address questions about the use of beta-agonists relative to animal welfare concerns."
Among the chief concerns of producers represented at the symposium was the potential for trade disruptions with the continued use of beta-agonists — Russia and China have prohibited imports of beef from animals fed the additives — as well as the impact on domestic beef supplies if the products are prohibited outright.
Mike Engler, chief executive officer of Cactus Feeders in Amarillo, Texas, estimated that the industry would require 6% more cattle to produce the same volume of beef without the use of beta-agonists.
Engler discussed management strategies to mitigate potential concerns from feeding zilpaterol, which his company uses in its operations. Those strategies include being more selective about which animals should be fed the additive, changing feeding strategies during hotter summer months and practicing low-stress handling.
Industry analysts privately speculated that while Tyson's decision may have been presented as an animal welfare issue, it was most likely influenced by the company's desire to sell more beef abroad.
Nonetheless, Callaway told symposium attendees that the beef industry is facing a "tipping point" relative to animal welfare concerns with beta-agonists. With Tyson's decision to take one product off the table for its suppliers, the first domino may already have fallen.