Officials at the Colorado-based JBS USA remained silent this past week regarding the recent announcement that Tyson Foods Inc. — one of their largest competitors — would no longer buy animals fed a supplement designed to bulk them up before slaughter.
Tyson is one of four companies that control 82 percent of the U.S. beef supply and — in a move that caught many in the beef industry by surprise — is now the first to make the move away from the controversial feed supplement, Zilmax.
JBS USA, a subsidiary of JBS SA in Brazil, is also among the four major U.S. beef-packers.
Company representatives said all week that “JBS doesn’t have a comment” regarding its competitor’s recent move — although Dow Jones Newswires reported Tuesday that JBS said it will continue to accept animals fed the growth promoting beta-agonist.
In addition to JBS, National and Cargill — the other two of the four major packers — said this past week they’ll continue to accept animals fed Zilmax.
But Reuters reported on Friday that Merck & Co. — the maker of Zilmax — is temporarily suspending sales of its animal feed additive in the U.S. and Canada, following concerns about use of the product.
Merck said its decision will allow the company time to implement its plan to establish study protocols, identify feeders and packers to participate in its audit while creating a third-party team to oversee the process and validate its results.
Merck said on Friday it remains confident in the safety of the product, which had sales of $159 million last year in the United States and Canada, according to Reuters.
On Aug. 7, Tyson sent a letter to cattle feeders, saying that as of Sept. 6, the company would no longer buy animals that have been treated with the beta-agonist, Zilmax.
The growth-inducing drugs, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, help feedyards get roughly 25 more pounds of beef from each carcass.
According to the Associated Press, they’ve been increasingly used to offset dwindling cattle herd numbers, especially in the face of last year’s drought.
However, “there have been recent instances of cattle delivered for processing that have difficulty walking or are unable to move,” Tyson told feeders in a letter. “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, also known as zilpaterol, is one possible cause.”
Some in the industry wonder if the real reason Tyson officials moved away from Zilmax is not about cattle, but rather the battle for sales in other countries, where using drugs for meat production is banned.
Zilmax has been available in the U.S. for cattle since 2007, and until now, all four of the nation’s big beef producers have bought cattle fattened on the feed additives.
Should all major meatpackers stop buying Zilmax-fed cattle, retail and wholesale prices of beef would rise because there would be less beef available, agriculture economists told the Associated Press.
While JBS officials didn’t provide comments to the Fence Post this past week, an article in the Minnesota-based, agriculture publication Feedstuffs reported that Lilly Callaway, an animal scientist who works for JBS, told a meeting of cattle producers this month that her company is seeing increasing reports of animals fed beta-agonists as stressed.
Also, according to Reuters, JBS USA — during a cattle industry conference — presented a video from a JBS plant showing cattle having difficulty walking after they were fed beta-agonist drugs. ❖