Beta agonists: the key arguments for and against adoption

Jon Condon, 15/07/2013


Early reaction to the prospect of registration of beta agonists in Australia has been mixed, with some stakeholders absolutely opposed to their introduction, and others strongly in support.

In essence, the debate comes down to simple cost versus benefit: does the potential productivity/competitiveness advantage in using the additives outweigh the perceived risk in market access, compromised tenderness, and harming Australia’s clean & green status?

Some large stakeholders, including the Australian Lot Feeders Association, are yet to form a policy on their use. Even within the feedlot sector, which stands to benefit most directly from beta agonist adoption, opinions appear to be divergent.

At least part of that may be explained by feedlots that are part of vertically-integrated export supply chains holding a somewhat different view than those that are dedicated to custom-feeding for external clients, for example. 

The Australian Meat Industry Council, representing export and domestic processors, has an official policy opposed to the introduction of the feed additives, on the basis of market access risk.

Cattle Council of Australia plans to discuss the beta agonist issue at its council meeting next month. ALFA members will receive a briefing at their upcoming BeefWorks technical seminar near Toowoomba. 

The main concerns raised by opponents to the introduction of beta agonists to Australia, and the responses from advocates are outlined below:

Market access:

As described in the introduction to this exclusive special report, there are market access issues in importing countries like Russia, China and the EU, which either ban the importation of beef produced using the additives, or have outright bans on beef-producing countries that use them.

Even within the Australian domestic market, it is questionable whether Coles, and perhaps also Woolworths, would support their use. Coles has already banned Paylean (ractopamine) in its pork supply chain, but unlike HGP, has made little noise about it.

Advocates say Australia has proved in discerning and closely-scrutinised markets like the EU that it can successful partition non-HGP EU-accredited cattle and manage them effectively through the supply chain. A similar process would be applied for beta agonist treated/free cattle, to allow Australia to continue to service international markets that do not accept treated beef, while also gaining the productivity benefits of providing the additive to other grainfed cattle. Unlike the US which has no mandated individual animal traceability system, Australia’s NLIS would play a strong role in achieving that.

Canada, Mexico and Brazil – which all permit the use of beta agonists – are putting management programs in place in order to regain access to the Russian export market.

One suggestion is that the commercial beta agonist products if released in Australia would only be made available for sale to NFAS registered feedlots, already heavily underpinned by quality assurance and audit procedures.

The initiators of the registration process are going to considerable lengths to ensure there are robust systems are designed to manage the use of beta agonists in Australian supply chains, before the broader industry scrutiny gains momentum.

Australia’s export market dependence:

While beta agonists are widely used in the US beef industry, the US is nowhere near as heavily trade-exposed as Australia is, exporting just 10pc of its beef production compared with Australia’s 70pc. That means decisions over the use of beta agonists in the US are coloured far more by domestic market acceptance, than any views held by export customers, opponents point out.

Adding to that, the days of Australian exporters selling grassfed or grainfed fullsets to Japan are long gone. Body parts are broken up and separated, heading in a multitude of directions. That trend would add enormous difficulty in overlaying a beta-agonist management program in Australia, critics say.

The counter-point to that is that industries using beta agonists overseas – the pork industry in the US is a good example – appear to successfully segregate treated and non-treated carcases to the satisfaction of international customers.

Damaging Australia’s clean & green image:

The introduction of beta agonists would generally undermine Australia’s ‘clean and green’ status in world markets, critics suggest. Advocates for Zilmax introduction say the concerns about damaging that ‘image’ are unfounded. Beta agonists came out of human medicine, and there is no scientific evidence that they are harmful to humans. If the product is used within its MRL, a human would have to eat 3.5 tonnes of beta agonist-fed beef to absorb the same amount of the compound that a child with asthma would, if used as a therapeutic human drug. A little like the GM crop debate, where consumer perceptions are changing over time, perceptions about beta agonists will do the same, advocates say.

Impact on meat quality:

There is no question that the use of beta agonists negatively impacts on meat quality via reduced tenderness and marbling. By nature of its action in enlarging the diameter of muscle fibres, Zilmax produces somewhat higher degrees of toughness in laboratory shear-force testing.

However the critical point is that highly credible research work at Texas Tech University and elsewhere suggests that most of that tenderness difference dissipates through the ageing process. US tests showed after 14 days ageing that the impact diminishes significantly – to the extent that consumers cannot pick it, and it can only be observed at laboratory level. USDA reports also suggest there has been little or no impact on US beef tenderness, generally, that can be attributed directly to beta agonist use. 

MSD is considering commissioning MSA consumer taste test trials in Australia, in advance of the product registration process to see if this result is replicated under Australian conditions.

Potential impacts on animal welfare:

There has been some international discussion about potential animal welfare impacts. For example, in a self-authored article, “Heat Stress and Lameness in Fed Feedlot Cattle is Detrimental to Animal Welfare”, Dr Temple Grandin suggests that a heat stress episode she observed in indicus-infused feedlot cattle in the US was likely to be linked to bulking-up as a result of beta agonist use.


Advocates for the use of beta agonists present a set of equally strong and well-argued facts to build a case for adoption, however:

Improved carcase weight, yield:

Class 2 beta agonists typically produce 6-8kg liveweight gain, and 10-14kg carcase weight gain over non-treated control animals, independent trials show. Carcase meat yield typically improves by 1.25-1.5pc. Discussing the impact of beta agonists in the US recently, US analyst Len Steiner said US cattle carcase weights exploded last year, in part due to the increased use of beta agonists.

Competitive advantage:

Australia is giving away a huge competitive advantage in productivity loss against the US grainfed beef industry in international markets like Japan and Korea in not having access to beta agonists. Productivity gains of $60-$70 per animal are possible, through live weight and carcase weight improvements, leanness, feed conversion and meat yield listed above.

No evidence of human health issues:

In a similar vein to HGP bans in the EU, there appears to be no scientific basis for bans on beta agonists on human health grounds.

Better environmental outcomes:

In terms of environmental impact, advocates point to the efficiencies in production outlined above, as evidence of more beef being produced from less grain, less water and producing less carbon GHG footprint. Like HGPs, beta agonist manufacturers suggest there is an environmental dividend in their use.

Since the Australian registration application was initiated, MSD has started a process of engagement and education across key stakeholders within the Australian beef supply chain. It would be unfair to suggest that the company is simply ‘standing at the feedlot gate, trying to sell product,’ one key feedlot sector stakeholder told Beef Central.

See this morning’s companion articles:


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