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Exclusive: Video of 'lame' cattle stirs new concern over growth drugs

Beef cattle feed on the Wulf farm in this June 27, 2008 file photo.
Credit: Reuters/Diane Bartz
Beef cattle feed on the Wulf farm in this June 27, 2008 file photo. Credit: Reuters/Diane Bartz

By P.J. Huffstutter and Lisa Baertlein

(Reuters) - At a beef industry conference in Denver last week, the animal health auditor for meat producer JBS USA presented a video showing short clips of cows struggling to walk and displaying other signs of distress. The animals appeared to step gingerly, as if on hot metal, and showed signs of lameness, according to four people who saw the video.

The people in attendance said the video was presented by Dr Lily Edwards-Callaway, the head of animal welfare at JBS USA, as part of a panel discussion on the pros and cons of using a class of drugs known as beta-agonists - the additives fed to cattle in the weeks before slaughter to add up to 30 pounds to bodyweight and reduce fat content in the meat.

Edwards-Callaway told the audience the cattle had been fed a beta-agonist, but did not identify which brand. She also said various factors - including heat, transportation, and animal health - may have contributed to the behavior seen on the video, according to JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett. He said the video showed cattle were "reluctant to move," and told Reuters JBS wanted feedback from animal welfare experts, who were among those attending, on what JBS's own staff had been seeing.

Reuters was unable to determine what feedback was received. Edwards-Callaway did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The video was shown on the same day the nation's largest meat producer, Tyson Foods Inc, declared it would no longer accept cattle that had been fed the most popular brand of the feed additive, called Zilmax, a powerful and fast-selling product from pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. Tyson, in a letter to its cattle suppliers, said the decision resulted not from food-safety questions but its concerns over the behavior of animals that animal health experts said could be connected to the use of Zilmax.

The JBS presentation and Tyson's decision to ban Zilmax-fed cattle underscores the increasingly complex tradeoffs facing the agricultural sector as it seeks to engineer greater volumes of food at low cost. Tensions have grown in the drive to meet that goal, including fears about animal welfare, mounting criticism by consumer advocates, and industry concern about the effect of biotechnology on product quality, such as whether beef still has the fatty marbling that some consumers like.

VIDEO FROM JBS PLANT

No one from Tyson Foods viewed the video or knew of its existence prior to the company's decision to stop buying Zilmax-fed cattle, according to Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson.

Zilmax and the Optaflexx brand of Eli Lilly Co's Elanco Animal Health unit dominate the beta-agonist market.

Merck told Reuters in a statement that its own probe into the Tyson matter has shown Zilmax is not the cause of the animal behaviors seen at Tyson's facilities but declined to elaborate further. Merck spokeswoman Pamela Eisele said decades of product research have shown Zilmax is safe for animals, adding that Merck is working with Tyson to determine why Tyson has observed non-ambulatory or lame cattle at some of its beef plants.

Reuters has not seen the JBS video, which was described to reporters in interviews with people who saw it during an August 7 panel session at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association conference.

The video was shot in recent months, Bruett said, with remote cameras used for auditing animal welfare at a single facility operated by JBS USA, which is a unit of JBS SA of Brazil. He declined to identify the facility's location. The video was shown with the approval of officials of JBS USA, some of whom attended the presentation, Bruett said.

Guy Loneragan, a professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech University, who spoke at the Denver conference, described the video as "compelling," and said "it was clear that these cattle were lame."

Loneragan, who serves as a food-safety adviser to JBS, told Reuters the cause of the animal distress in the video was not clear.

Temple Grandin, who has pioneered humane slaughterhouse practices as a consultant to several major beef processors, described the short video clips she saw during the presentation. One clip showed an animal that did not want to move, and hands pushing it. Others showed cattle that looked stiff and lethargic, Grandin said.

Grandin told Reuters the cattle should have been energetic and moving on their own. Instead, she said, the affected animals in the video "walk like they're 90-year-old grandmothers."

DRUG MAKERS REACT

The drug zilpaterol, the active ingredient in Zilmax, is stronger than other beta-agonists on the market, and debuted in 2007.

Merck's chief rival in beta-agonists for cattle is Eli Lilly's Elanco Animal Health unit, which makes ractopamine-based drugs for cattle, hogs and turkey. Elanco told Reuters it believes Tyson's concerns are specific to Zilmax, since Tyson continues purchasing animals fed Elanco's Optaflexx.

Elanco in a statement said 48 research studies, including over 29,000 cattle, showed "no difference in mortality, disease or other animal well-being related concerns" between animals fed Optaflexx and those that did not eat the Elanco drug.

Tyson, in response to questions from Reuters, said the company has seen problems in its own slaughterhouses similar to those described from the JBS video. The problems were infrequent yet common enough to warrant concern, Tyson's Mickelson said.

Mickelson said the company does not know the cause of the problem. However, he said, independent veterinarians and animal welfare experts have told Tyson officials that Zilmax could be to blame. He declined to elaborate.

WIDENING DEBATE

The debate over Zilmax follows a similar dispute over ractopamine. China and Russia have banned the import of meat from ractopamine-fed animals, and the U.S.-based pork giant Smithfield Foods in May announced it will stop feeding ractopamine to half its pig herd, a move seen as an effort to recapture the lucrative China market. Weeks later, China's Shuanghui International announced plans to buy Smithfield.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed beta-agonists safe both for farm animals and for human health. "No animal safety concerns were described in any of the studies performed" before the agency approved Zilmax in 2006, according to a statement from the agency.

An FDA spokeswoman told Reuters it was not aware of the video.

Tyson's move to distance itself from Zilmax marked a startling turnabout for the Springdale, Arkansas-based company, which was the first large scale U.S. meat company to advocate the use of the feed additive.

Agribusiness giant Cargill Inc., which long resisted buying Zilmax-fed cattle over concerns that the drug degraded meat quality, began accepting such cattle in June of 2012. Spokesman Michael Martin told Reuters Cargill would continue to buy cattle fed with the drug. At its plants Cargill has not seen what Tyson and JBS have experienced, Martin said.

National Beef Packing Co, another leading beef producer, in a statement said it accepts Zilmax-fed cattle and will not change its procurement practices.

Originally developed as asthma drugs for humans, beta-agonists - in a decade of use - have helped bolster the ability to produce more beef with fewer cattle. Due to the introduction of Zilmax and other factors, including improved feed and animal genetics, the U.S. industry produced more than 26 billion pounds of beef from 91 million head of cattle last year. In 1952, it took 111 million head of cattle to produce 21 billion pounds of beef.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows beef produced with beta-agonists to be labeled hormone-free, antibiotic-free and "natural," as the drugs do not fall into the same class as either growth hormones or antibiotics.

Use of such pharmacology has been a hot topic of debate for more than a year in the U.S. cattle industry, where ranchers, feed lots and meat producers generally support the use of biotechnology to increase weight gain in cattle.

WARNING SIGNS

While Tyson's decision to stop processing cattle fed Zilmax caught some cattle suppliers off-guard, the nation's largest meat producer said it had seen signs of trouble emerging as temperatures soared early this summer.

Some of the cattle delivered to Tyson's slaughter plants had trouble moving after being delivered, according to company and cattle industry sources familiar with the matter.

At first, Tyson officials blamed the heat. In a letter sent to feedlots earlier this summer, Tyson called for extra care with cattle because some animals were showing "signs of being lame," according to a source who read the letter to Reuters.

As weeks passed, the problems continued in a small percentage of cattle, said Tyson's Mickelson. After consulting with veterinarians and other animal health experts, Tyson on August 7 sent a second letter to its feedlot suppliers, alerting them it would stop buying cattle fed with Zilmax.

"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," according to the letter.

Either way, the issue "is significant enough that we believe our decision is warranted," Mickelson told Reuters.

(Additional Reporting By Tom Polansek and Theopolis Waters in Chicago and Toni Clarke in Washington, D.C.; Editing by David Greising. Martin Howell)

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