SEVERAL years ago, when beta-agonists were first being used in cattle, I was attending a meat industry event.
A good friend whose business was supplying white table cloth restaurants with top-quality cuts of meat took me aside and said, "These beta-agonists are terrible. We must prevent them from being used."
I knew the source of his concern. Although beta-agonists add weight to cattle quickly, those extra pounds often come at the cost of meat quality. Cattle fed beta-agonists produced leaner meat and did not grade out as high.
My friend, who bought only the top-grading 2% of cattle, feared he would have to pay more for a scarcer product.
I assured him that we wouldn't be faced with a sudden avalanche of "no-roll" beef and that he would still be able to find plenty of well-marbled meat that he could age and sell to the finest steakhouses in the country.
Like most "meat men" who count profits a penny at a time, he wasn't mollified.
The feed additive, marketed by Merck (Zilmax) and Elanco (Optaflexx), caught on quickly and became one of the most successful new products introduced by either company.
A beta-agonist could add anywhere from 15 lb. to more than 22 lb. of liveweight when it was mixed with the feed in the animal's last 30 days on a feedlot. Feed efficiency improved by double digits.
A possible downside cropped up, though, when long-whispered reports of animal handling issues suddenly got a bit louder.
Sore-footed, staggering, stumbling and hard to move were words used to describe some cattle fed beta-agonists. The subject was a major topic of discussion during the recent National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) meeting in Denver, Colo.
A concerned NCBA convened top animal welfare experts, led by Dr. Temple Grandin, to review the research behind the product and compare it to real-life observations.
Grandin had voiced some concerns about beta-agonists two years ago but was more forceful after reviewing some video footage of affected animals and talking about the problem with her peers.
"I said the stiffness, heat stress and sore-footed problems are NOT acceptable and must be fixed. My final statement at the NCBA meeting was, 'Fix it or lose it,'" Meat&Poultry magazine reported of Grandin's comments.
Then, a remarkable thing happened. In an industry notorious for digging in its heels when bad news about its practices surfaces, Merck did the right thing and followed Grandin's "fix it or lose it" directive.
The company voluntarily pulled its Zilmax product from the marketplace — losing millions of dollars of sales — until the necessary studies can be completed (Feedstuffs, Aug. 19).
Merck's decision took a pile of Rocky Mountain oysters to make. It was a sober, tough but correct move on the company's part.
The studies could very well prove the product blameless. If they do, it will take years for Merck to regain its market position.
If the results show a direct correlation between the product and the purported animal welfare issues, though, Merck still can enjoy a clear corporate conscience because it did the right thing.
*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.