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UPDATE: Cattle Growth Promotants – New Development Unfolds

By Edmund LaMacchia, August 24, 2013  |  Meet the Blogger  |  More Posts by Edmund LaMacchia

If you’ve been following the news closely over the last few weeks, you have probably heard about an interesting development in the beef industry.

Earlier this month, Tyson Foods Inc. – the biggest beef processor in the US - announced that it will no longer accept cattle that have been fed Zilmax (a type of growth promotant, also known as a beta agonist that promotes fast weight gain).

In their announcement, they state that there have been some instances of cattle arriving at the plant that have difficulty walking or are unable to move, and this has lead them to stop accepting cattle fed Zilmax. (Note: Whole Foods Market® first started prohibiting growth hormones in the early 1980’s).  

The manufacturer of the drug – Merck Animal Health – responded that their product had a 30-year history of testing but that they would conduct audits and further research. However, a few days later Merck announced that they would temporarily suspend sales of Zilmax in the US and Canada while they implement the auditing process.

Why should you care about this latest development? Earlier this year, I wrote about the use of growth promotants in the cattle industry and how they impact the beef we eat.

To be clear, Whole Foods Market prohibits the use of growth promotants/beta agonists in our entire meat supply, as well as antibiotics, ionophores, growth hormones and sulfas. Every beef ranch that supplies cattle to be sold at Whole Foods Market undergoes an on-site third party farm audit every 15 months as part of our strict animal welfare requirements – and part of that audit process checks to make sure these prohibited substances are not used.

While the meat you buy at Whole Foods Market does not contain these drugs, it is very concerning that growth promotants like Zilmax are widely used in the beef industry, not only from an animal welfare perspective but also because of its effects on meat quality and the unknown implications to humans of eating beef fed growth promotants.

Tyson’s surprise announcement has caused quite a stir in the industry and has been called a “game changer” by analysts. According to industry estimates1, 2 more than 70% of US cattle are fed growth promotants and cattle can pack on the pounds - gaining 30+ lbs in 20-40 days. It is uncertain whether feed yards will switch to an alternative growth promotant or stop using them altogether, but there is speculation that there will be beef shortages and higher prices as a result of the suspension of Zilmax in the market. After almost a decade of using growth promotants, it will be interesting to follow how the 75,000 US cattle feed yards handle this latest development. The use of Zilmax is an example of how the “Concentrated Animal Feed Yard” system, based on intensive consumption of corn by confined cattle, is broken.  The competition for profits between ranchers, feeders and processors has created a system where each is looking for an advantage over the other, rather than a system based on a win/win/win philosophy.  This is driving operators to make decisions based solely on economics rather than quality, animal welfare or consumer interests.       

More than 80 countries have banned the use of growth promotants/beta agonists already. And at Whole Foods Market we prohibit their use too. Should growth promotants continue to be allowed in the US and Canada? Tell us what you think!


1 Joe Roybal and Wes Ishmael, “Capping An Eventful Nine days, Merck Halts Zilmax™ Sales,” BEEF (August 20, 2013).

2 “Merck makes game-changing announcement on Zilmax,” Meating Place, (August 16, 2013).


Category: Meat, Company Info




PAM says ...
Thank you Whole Foods for your common sense decisions on not selling beef products that use growth hormones! I appreciate it very much and with more stores had the same philosophies. I used to eat beef all the time but when Mad Cow disease happened I stopped eating it completely for awhile now I only buy grass fed organic beef and probably eat beef once a month. I love shopping at Whole Foods but it is over 20 miles to one of your stores in Seattle, Washington, so I don't go that often. I wish you would put one in somewhere between Seattle and Tacoma. I live in Kent, Washington.
08/24/2013 3:08:53 PM CDT
james williams says ...
Once a month I take a 40 minute trip to Whole Foods for a massive stock up of food. For a family of 3 this is about $400. I choose this market because of the healthy, mostly organic choices. I spend the extra for what I consider, what I believe is honest knowledge I receive from the employees and better food for my family. I am not rich by any means, but our health is most important. My question is this: I buy chicken and beef in both meat and deli that I feel is a healthier choice. Can you guarantee, at least, that the feed for these animals are GMO-free? This is very much a big selling point especially with the GMO-free movement taking place in this country( GMO is also banned in most countries, although politically, it is not in the U.S.) If not, then it can be purchased anywhere for less cost. Any feedback would be appreciated. Thank you.
08/26/2013 12:18:55 PM CDT
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@JAMES - We recommend to our customers that want to avoid products from animals fed GMOs can do so now by choosing organic meat and dairy products (since organic standards prohibit the intentional use of GMOs). We announced in March 2013 that by 2018 all products in our U.S. and Canadian stores must be labeled to indicate whether or not they contain GMOs. Our non-GMO labeling transparency initiative includes all the products we sell, going far beyond what any of the state initiatives and legislation have proposed so far. Products based on or containing ingredients created from government approved GMO crops will need to be labeled by manufacturers. This includes our suppliers of meat, dairy and farmed seafood, who will also need to verify by 2018 whether or not their feed contains GMO corn, soy or alfalfa.
08/26/2013 2:32:47 PM CDT
Ed Canane says ...
I make these comments as a committed grass farmer and angus cow/calf producer managing our herd from conception to the dinner table. (1) 30lbs in 20-40 days resulting from hormone additives? I would expect the weight gain, particularly in CAFO to be at least triple that. Then I realized that statement most likely reflects the weight gain that is due strictly to Zilmax. That sould concern anyone who is ingesting that meat. (2) The pic in this article shows the cattle near what appears to be concrete feed bunker, with tags in each ear (usually one is for ID/antibiotics and the other for hormone (both slow release) while standing up to their hocks in "organic" material. A picture says a thousand words. (3) It is of particular import that it was Tyson, the 800lb gorilla in AG, who got Merk to move on this issue. Not the downed animals and other problematic conditions that had to be obvious to any person within the chain of custody. I was at a grass and sustainability conference where Temple Grandien, world reknown animal behaviorist, was the keynote speaker. She said "Mc Donallds" and boos rained down from the audience. She went on to describe how the company developed standards for their processing in USDA slaughterhourses and monitored adherence. The standards are very impressive and strict. She talked about plants that had multi million dollar contacts with McDonalds and where they did not meet the standards and McDonalds terminated the contracts. Those plants got in line pronto! Whole Foods, like these other unlikely players, are the key to changing in how our food is produced and ulimatelty gets to our dinner tables. I admire the Animal Welfare program WF has in place and their commitmment and leadership in all efforts for providing us safe and qualitiy foods. To WF.... "Keep up the great work".
09/03/2013 8:01:41 AM CDT
tam says ...
Yay!! Thank you for setting the tone and the philosophy to rid this industry of it's harmful practices and I'm so glad that they are starting to make the necessary changes to this very harmful industry. Analysts calling it a game changer is a clear indicator that the flood gates are now opened to allow humane practices to be realized. Seriously, I wouldn't have said this 3 weeks ago, but well done Tyson for taking steps to reduce the suffering of these animals. Now, let's get these harmful hormones out of pigs too. This is also starting to occur as international markets, China, Russia and the entire EU are no longer importing produce ridden and harmed with hormones. Keep up the good work and Thank you!
09/05/2013 2:07:19 PM CDT
Carla says ...
I know there will be many more vegetarians as a result of these kinds of 'after the fact' revelations to consumers. The Happy Days of meat farming for cheaters and liars ARE OVER! Bye-bye meat unless you know the grower really well! And checking a farm every 15 months is really ridiculous! These people are cheaters and liars and can't be trusted for a minute without being watched like a hawk! Fortunately we have the NSA to do just that! [ LOL! Right. ] And as far as trusting whole food employees, I have been lied to twice about canola oil being used in their ready-to-go meals over a two year period about 6 years ago and they can't convince me of anything now. How do I know they lied to me? Well, I got two completely different stories and one of them was from a manager. I did my best and they did theirs and it didn't work out that well. Canola oil is gmo rape seed oil from it's inception: A 'Cleaner-Crop' that takes toxins out of the soil! Gimme some a that! Yuk! How ignorant [as in 'ignoring' the facts] do you have to be? Expeller pressed gmo-rape seed oil: Super!
12/19/2013 10:05:15 AM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@CARLA - I can assure you that we use non-GMO verified canola oil in all of our in-house prepared food dishes.
12/20/2013 1:23:09 PM CST
Chuck Minerd says ...
No growth hormones, or other artificial feed should be fed to the animals, and antibiotics or other medications should only be used as necessary and only in minimal amounts. Necessary meaning only if animal need it for health reasons.
01/01/2014 4:35:48 PM CST
Randy says ...
I am in the process of changing my diet to grass fed, pasture raised meats. The commensurate increase in food costs has been difficult to absorb as such I see first hand just what a legal ban on the use of such products would mean, higher costs accross the board. Face it, economies of scale would be nice, but in the near to mid term it couldn't keep costs low enough for most families whos diets would become worse as they switch to more low cost grains that are no good for them. Ranchers should be free to feed their cows whatever they want as long as their customers are informed. The Ranchers can then reap what they sow, good or bad, from those decisions. There is a clear market for lower quality grain fed, hormone injected and growth enhanced products. It makes the meat cheaper, in quality as well as price, but that is a decision for the consumer, not the government.
01/08/2014 8:12:24 AM CST
Barbara says ...
No! Growth hormones and chemicals are "killing" our children. At the current rate, our next generation will be fat, lazy inactive and never feeling really good!
01/21/2014 1:18:39 PM CST
Sally Schneider says ...
Thank you for the information on your beef supply. One question no answered for me in reading this is the level of humanity used in killing the cows. Can you please address this? Thank you!
01/24/2014 11:57:09 AM CST
Nikki - Community Moderator says ...
@SALLY - Since 2011, we have required all our beef, chicken and pork suppliers to be certified to the Global Animal Partnership’s 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating Program. This innovative program makes it easier for customers concerned with the treatment of farm animals to know how animals were raised. There are at least 100 standards to be met and each farm/ranch must pass an on-site audit every 15 months to verify they meet the standards. At this time, their multi-tiered standards are for the on-farm/on-ranch and transport components of animal production. They will be developing standards for other components, including breeding and slaughter at a later date.
01/24/2014 3:15:31 PM CST
sue says ...
In the ancient teaching of the vedas there is a drawn a direct connection between animal slaughter and war, especially regarding the cows who provide so many wonderful products. War sometimes happens even though most people desire peace and millions of people die, just as millions of animals are slaughtered daily. The Bible also teaches "As you sow, so shall you reap" So It appears that there is agreement there too. Although some may choose to argue I think it is well worth considering after all the consequences are all to daunting!!
03/05/2014 4:12:39 PM CST
As a small beef producer in central Illinois, we raise our purebred Angus cattle free of any chemicals, steroids, growth hormones, & antibiotics. It takes us about 3-4 months longer to feed out cattle than ranchers keeping beef in a feed lot. We are on a family farm that has been chemical free for over 50 years, so the cattle are grazing on a chemically free pasture as well. As a member of the beef industry, I can tell you that very few retailers can guarantee GMO free. The reason being the FDA has passed new standards which allow GMO altering of alfalfa. This means the "grass fed steroid free" cattle a not necessarily GMO free. Whole Foods & buyers that are concerned about this should look to smaller, local vendors who can meet the demands, but still maintain the purest standards in their operation. In addition, the FDA requires "in order for beef to be labeled Angus by ANY retailer, it needs to be 51% black." This means that any restaurant or store can label black dairy cattle....which are not bred to be beef cattle....as Angus. Even the purest of retailers needs to buy from local breeders to make sure their product is high quality & chemical free.
03/10/2014 3:22:45 PM CDT
Donna P says ...
Maybe this is why most Americans are over weight.They are eating all this chemical in the meat they eat. Shame on the food companies putting all this crap in the foods.
03/29/2014 4:16:49 PM CDT
lee mcatee says ...
I live in NE PDX where good healthy food is not far from my front door. BUT Whole Foods has continued to differentiate itself from the competition. I can almost see 5 different markets from my front step; actually they are all within a mile. I have met 1-2 of the CNB ranchers and the story they have, should be told more often. They are so far ahead of the competition in their products; the term "grass fed" is getting to be the new baseline and the one everyone looks for. Reading the 5-6 step program for raising cattle to the co-op process are just some of the "extras" in their beef. They have a great story that started so very long ago it should be the front runner in all advertisements. I don't know CNB other than I met a CNB rancher a couple years ago. I did go 35 years without eating red meat because of a very strong (heart pounding keep me awake) allergic reaction to it. About 5 years ago; I discovered it wasn't the red meat it was the 'added stuff' or as an aging athletes call them "roids" that was added the beef. Enough from me here; WF only sells excellent (now that is an excellent term almost like "Natural") food and I shop for seafood and CNB and are never disappointed. You are as close as they get to having offerings where the customer doesn't have to read the label.
07/11/2014 7:49:29 PM CDT