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/