WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Cattle feeders in the U.S. are coping
with reduced herds and high corn costs in part by increasing their use of
growth-inducing drugs designed to bulk up animals, get more pounds of beef from
each carcass and circumvent the drought’s withering effects on the food cycle.
Accelerated use of the drugs, known as “beta-agonists,” is
defended by producers who say they are essential to withstanding the drought and
their pharmaceutical creators who insist the additives are safe.
But their use is drawing new scrutiny both at home and
abroad, especially now that Russia and other key markets for U.S. beef have
banned their use and some domestic producers worry about the additives’
potential effect on beef tenderness and flavor.
In February, Russia joined the European Union, China and
other countries banning the import of beef raised on the additives.
The U.S. — which along with other countries such as Mexico
and Canada allow the supplements — blames politics, not food safety fears, for
the export bans. But some U.S. consumer groups also are taking notice.
In December, the Center for Food Safety and the Animal Legal
Defense Fund filed a petition with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration urging
the agency to conduct comprehensive studies on the long-term effects of human
consumption and animal health.
Initially used to treat respiratory ailments in humans, the
additives — fed to livestock in the last days of their lives — are mixed in with
normal feeds and work at a cellular level to more efficiently convert the feed’s
nutrients into lean muscle instead of fat.
Their use has fueled annual increases in carcass weights
that result in larger cuts of meat in stores — a pharmaceutical end-run around a
drought that has not only driven up the cost of feed grains, but has forced
cattlemen to sell off their livestock.
Statistics kept by the U.S. Department of Agriculture prove
what consumers are seeing: In 2000, the average fed carcass weight was 772
By 2011, with the use of beta-agonists picking up speed,
weights had grown to an average 816 pounds. During the 2012 drought, the average
beef carcass weighed 835 pounds.
“Drought and tough times makes a producer use all technology
that is available,” said Kevin Good, CattleFax analyst.
The FDA has approved two beta-agonists: ractopamine,
marketed for cattle under the brand name Optaflexx by Elanco Animal Health; and
more recently zilpeterol, sold under the brand name Zilmax by Merck Animal
Health. The more potent zilpeterol has been available for cattle in the U.S.
While hormone implants have been widely available to cattle
producers for decades, newer technologies such as beta-agonists did not become
commercially available in the U.S. until 2004 after ractopamine was approved for
cattle. FDA approved ractopamine for pigs in 1999.
The federal government considers them safe, and their makers
contend the additives increase productivity and have no noticeable effect on the
beef’s taste if producers follow feeding guidelines.
When corn was cheap, feedlot operator Steve Landgraf could
afford to feed enough grain to his cattle, and he only put in one time-released
growth hormone implant in each animal’s ear to help them gain weight.
The drought has him inserting two hormone implants in the
ears of each animal that comes into his Lakin Feed yard in southwest Kansas —
plus he now is feeding them beta-agonists.
While those drugs cost a lot of money, he said he can afford
to spend a little more for them when feed grain costs are so high.
“We are feeding the cattle less corn and making them
bigger,” he said.
Cattle fed ractopamine reach slaughter weight eight days
earlier than those who do not get the supplements, each animal consuming an
average 2.3 fewer bushels of corn, according to study prepared by Global
AgriTrends, a private agricultural analysis firm.
If beta-agonists were removed from the 70 percent of U.S.
cattle which now are estimated to use them, it would require an additional 41
million bushels of corn to beef up cattle for slaughter. Removing it from the 90
percent of pigs grown on the supplement would require another 50 million
That is not a significant amount of corn for most years, but
that amount taken out of last year’s drought-plagued corn production would have
reduced estimated ending stocks to the lowest level in history, Global
In June, Cargill Beef became one of the last major
meatpacking companies to accept cattle fed beta-agonists at its slaughterhouses
— despite its earlier misgivings stemming from its own research finding that
there can be “a negative impact overall beef quality” on marbling and tenderness
if “best production practices” are not followed.
Without the policy change, the company would not have been
able to buy enough cattle to keep its plants running and meet customer
commitments. An estimated 70 percent to 75 percent of U.S. beef cattle are fed
such growth promoters, Cargill spokesman Michael Martin said.
“While Cargill has not completely embraced the use of growth
promotants due to the potential resulting lower quality of meat, the vast
majority of the beef cattle we harvest come from third party ranchers and
feedlots that we have little control over,” the company said.
Merck and Elanco both contend their beta-agonists feed
additives are safe and help producers optimize productivity with no noticeable
effect by consumers on beef quality.
But Michael Hansen, senior scientist at the Consumers Union,
which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, disagrees.
“It makes meat unpalatable,” Hansen said. “These steaks get
so large, the meat gets so tough.”
Advocates of their use say other international markets allow
in U.S. beef raised on the additives, noting Taiwan last summer agreed to adopt
international standards for ractopamine residues in a move that cleared the way
for beef exports from the U.S. But Taiwan still bans ractopamine from pork
imported into the country.
Critics contend that contradiction is more about protecting
that country’s pork industry. Taiwan doesn’t have a domestic cattle industry.
Brett Stuart, a founding partner of Global AgriTrends,
contended those trade impact estimates are overblown because the beef Russia
doesn’t buy is either sold domestically to U.S. consumers or to other
He estimated the actual market impact of the closure of the
Russian market to be closer to $2.84 per head in value.
Back home, producers fear the additives may create a
reputation for producing tougher beef by sharply reducing the marbling that
keeps meat tender when it’s cooked.
The marbling adds essential fats and thus flavor, and the
criticism troubles John Stika, president of Certified Angus Beef, a group owned
by the 30,000 members of the American Angus Association.
He said the additives are safe, but he’s concerned their
potential effect on taste could eventually hurt consumer demand.
“We have concerns about anything that jeopardizes our
brand’s ability — and even our industry’s ability — to deliver upon that promise
of taste that consumers use as their primary purchasing decision on, ‘Should I
buy beef or should I buy pork or poultry,’” he said.
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