Whole Story

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A Perspective on Cattle Growth Promotants

By Edmund LaMacchia, April 14, 2013  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Edmund LaMacchia

Three years ago, while attending a National Cattleman’s Beef Association trade show, I learned about a new generation of growth promotants for beef cattle. The discussions left me feeling concerned as the conversations were all focused on red meat yield per animal. While I wasn’t very familiar with the term beta agonist (which is a type of growth promotant), the mechanism that was being discussed reminded me of performance enhancement drugs commonly used by athletes.

To be clear, Whole Foods Market® prohibits the use of growth promotants in our entire meat supply, as well as prohibits the use of antibiotics, ionophores, growth hormones, and sulfas. But I’m naturally curious (just ask anyone on my team) so wanted to understand why producers use growth promotants like Zilmax and Optaflexx on their animals.

Here is what I found out. Cattle nearing maturity naturally begin to deposit additional fat and less muscle during the final days of the feeding period. This fat gives that nice marbling effect you see in the steaks you buy and ultimately gives a great juicy flavor when you cook them. But, if cattle are fed beta agonists, like Zilmax and Optaflexx, the natural metabolic processes in the animal are changed – cattle actually make more muscle, and less fat. These products are typically added to the feed the last 20-40 days before cattle are processed and during this time, as a direct result of feeding beta agonists, a beef animal can gain an additional 30+ pounds, without eating more feed!

Interestingly, despite a severe shortage of cattle in the marketplace today, the supplies and retail prices of commercially produced beef are abundant and relatively inexpensive – possibly due to the use of beta agonists and more meat produced per animal. From a financial perspective using beta agonists can be a big win for feedlot and beef processing businesses. But is it best for the animals? And what about consumers?

Aside from the fact that beta agonists are banned in more than 80 countries including Russia, China and the European Union, there are other reasons why we should be concerned. The long term effects on humans are not known – while beta agonists have been used to treat asthma, some beta agonists are known carcinogens. Trace amounts of beta agonists have been found in US beef and pork (2-4 ppb) imported into Russia and Taiwan. While these levels do not exceed FDA tolerances (30ppb)1; both Russia and Taiwan have a zero tolerance policy and refused to take the meat, further demonstrating the controversial nature of growth promotants worldwide2,3.

From an animal welfare perspective, there’s research from Dr Temple Grandin’s team at Colorado State University to suggest animals fed beta agonists are more susceptible to heat stress and lameness probably due to the changes in metabolism caused by these additives. Beta agonists also impact meat quality. While the meat may be leaner, it is less juicy and less flavorful without that fat marbling.

In my observations over the last year, the use of beta agonists has expanded throughout the industry in 2012 and is the major reason commercial beef prices have not gone up relative to the reduction of animals in production. I suspect we will be paying for the short term savings in many other ways over the next several years.

At Whole Foods Market, we always want to offer high quality, juicy steaks, at the best possible price. We feel the best steak comes from animals raised to high animal welfare standards, and not fed antibiotics, ionophores, growth hormones, beta agonists or sulfas.

What do you think? Do you think growth promotants should be allowed in the US? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.



1Growth Promotants In Meat Production: Their Use and Safety – American Meat Institute

2 U.S. Presses Taiwan on Ractopamine Ban – Food Safety News (Feb 7, 2012) http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/02/us-presses-taiwan-on-ractopamine-ban/

3 Russia to Ban U.S. Meat Over Ractopamine Residues This Month – Food Safety News (Feb 1, 2013) http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2013/02/russia-to-ban-u-s-meat-over-ractopamine-residues-this-month/


Category: Meat, Food Issues




olli says ...
I come from the UK where our standards are the EU minimum and higher local standards. Even there, we have had a succession of seriously worrying events concerning food quality. I shop carefully even in the UK, yet now that I'm living in the US I find that the standards generally are lower and, more worryingly, few people seem to care. Since I've moved here I'm eating a lot more vegetarian food and a lot more fish and I've cut our pork completely. When I buy meat I but it at whole foods or the local farmers' market where I can have some confidence about how it has been produced. The key thing for me is that is growth promotants are permitted there should also be a requirement that all beef treated this way be labelled as such so that consumers who want to avoid this stuff have the option of doing so.
04/21/2013 3:50:17 PM CDT
Tammy says ...
I wish I lived in a country that had higher standards. I feel that as a consumer there should be a label stating if growth promotants have been injected.
04/24/2013 10:40:06 AM CDT
Ted Miller says ...
In 2007 and 2008 or around that time my gal and I loved the beef that Whole Foods had. It was clearly marked as Oregon Beef and the brochure for the Country Meat people was in a holder on the meat case. It was the best beef I had ever had from any grocery ever. Now there are the numbers, and in the Whole foods stores I have seen it is all 2. I have asked the butchers in one store (W.F.) what happened and they didn't know. I appreciate that you have this blog and that you looked into the story on the growth promoting drugs. Calling it growth promoting sounds like MBA speak to me. I went to a local competitor of WF today that was close and the meat had as the source USA Canada and Mexico and there was no information on how the beef was raised at all. I am wondering what has happened to the great Oregon Beef and why doesn't Whole Foods have at least 4? Thanks for this chance to ask, I trust Whole Foods to tell the truth.
04/25/2013 4:53:48 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@TED - Since our products/vendors vary between locations, it would be best to reach out to the exact store where you purchased the beef from Oregon. If you recall the name of the vendor that will help the store look in to it for you.
04/29/2013 3:53:35 PM CDT
Sondra says ...
list of grass fed beef farms in New England which you source. This was posted in your Wellseley store.
05/12/2013 2:03:58 PM CDT
Kelly says ...
Promotants should NOT be allowed. I also hope the US can find a way to eliminate, or cut down on the use of antibiotics in beef, though I'm pessimistic, given the proliferation of CAFOs and suppliers and chains willing to buy up their disgusting meat. That said, I've bought the Grass Fed beef you offer in your multiple Massachusetts stores for as long as I can remember. THANK YOU FOR OFFERING IT. And thank you, again, for the all the organic produce you offer in your stores, and for articles like these. The corporation and Mackey have me as a life long customer and fan. Similar to you animal welfare system, I'd be interested in seeing it applied to your produce section. For instance, do any organic farms filter the water they use to grow crops to eliminate fluoride? Do they test for other contaminates in the water or soil? How about their soil quality?
05/19/2013 11:55:17 AM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@KELLY - Any certified organic farm is required to demonstrate to their certifier that their water is compliant with the USDA National Organic Program Regulations. These regulations require that farmers must produce crops using methods and materials (including water) that do not contribute to the contamination of crops, soil or water by plant nutrients, pathogenic organisms, heavy metals, or residues of prohibited substances. If there is any reason to believe that the water may be contaminated or otherwise unfit for use, the certifier may require testing to show that the water is safe and acceptable for use, or for the farmer to implement mitigation measures to protect the organic crop from contamination.
05/22/2013 10:26:15 AM CDT
Vanessa says ...
I am not surprised this is allowed in the United States. It is a shame how blinded most people are to think we have safe food production system here in our country. It is all about money. Thanks for the article!
05/22/2013 3:15:36 PM CDT
JS says ...
I am shocked that the US has lower health standards in this regard than most countries. However, I remain very grateful that Whole Foods prohibits all of this sort of stuff on principle as it is the main reason I switched to shop exclusively at Whole Foods for > 10 years. I don't want to eat any sort of Frankenfood. I remain shocked that the general public seems somewhat indifferent and will trustingly eat anything put in front of them.
08/13/2013 7:34:54 AM CDT
Carson Kelly says ...
To all of you who openly scorn the use of growth promotants, Your dollars speak louder than you words. When you are willing to pay more for your beef producers will be willing and even compete to produce great tasting growth promotant beef. But, until you are willing to pay the price required to produce the product you want it will not happen. Or do you expect the rancher to accept that cost in his already thin profit margins? If you want it pay for it and you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that producers will provide. Sincerely, A Producer
10/23/2013 11:37:19 PM CDT
James says ...
I am concerned about an article I read about Beef Northwest using Zilmax. Beef Northwest handles meat for one of Whole Foods suppliers called Country Natura Beef. How do you know Zilmax was not in the final feed once the livestock has been sent to Beef Northwest? I am 100% against using beta agonists or any other short cuts in raising livestock.
12/30/2013 6:41:47 PM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@JAMES - We do not sell meat from animals raised with Zilmax, Ractopamine or any other beta agonist. Our quality standards prohibit all use of growth-enhancing drugs, including sub-therapeutic (preventive) antibiotics, growth hormones and beta agonists. Our purchasing model supports total transparency in our meat supply chain. Plus, the 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating program allows us to trace beef, pork and chicken back to our suppliers so they can know where the meat came from and how the animals were raised. More information is available at www.wholefoodsmarket.com/meat.
12/31/2013 10:50:40 AM CST
melissa arnold says ...
Where is the resource for the research you cited from Colorado State and Temple Grandin?
10/01/2014 1:12:56 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@MELISSA - You can find the detailed info at http://www.grandin.com/heat.stress.lameness.html.
10/10/2014 3:30:28 PM CDT
Apple50 says ...
Whole Foods recently opened near my home. Please continue to maintain high standards, since consumers are clearly on our own regarding food quality. Our elected officials of either party, are not "in the building " and while I do let my opinions be known, it has become clear that it falls on deaf ears. I think USDA organic is meaningful, but since it's connected to a government agency, it sometimes gives me pause. So I look for the voluntary labeling such as the nonGMO project etc. and for this we depend on producers, vendors, and retailers honesty and high standards. Please keep up the good work.
09/08/2015 8:10:06 AM CDT
Michael Della Mea says ...
I agree that antibiotics, ionophores, growth hormones, beta agonists and sulfas should not be used in cattle, poultry, swine or any other meat source animals. I was concerned about ractopamine and this is why I was searching the WF site. I am relieved to see this blog and will continue to buy my meats from WF. Thanks for leading the way.
01/07/2016 11:55:55 AM CST