Merck slaps temporary ban on its beta agonist

Jon Condon, 18/08/2013


The recent focus on the use of the beta agonist feed additive, Zilmax in the US took another surprising twist late last week when manufacturer, Merck Animal Health voluntarily suspended sales of the product pending results from a comprehensive review.

The decision could have industry-wide implications and reduce overall beef production in the US, analysts said.

A fortnight ago, major US packer Tyson Foods surprised the market when it imposed a temporary ban on the use of Merck’s beta agonist product, Zilmax, in its US slaughter cattle, due to concerns about ‘animal well-being,’ linked to lameness, walking problems and shortness of breath in slaughter cattle. See Beef Central’s report here.

Tyson stressed that its decision was not a food safety issue, but was about “ensuring the proper treatment of the livestock we depend on to operate.”

The issue has particular resonance for Australia, because while the product is not currently registered for use in Australian beef production, MSD (Merck) has made moves recently towards Australian registration. See Beef Central’s earlier special report here.

In a statement issued on Friday, Merck said in support of its customers and to ensure effective implementation of its previously-announced five-step management plan, it had imposed a temporary suspension of sales to “allow sufficient time for the establishment of valid study protocols, identification of feeders and packers to participate in the audit, and creation of a third-party team to oversee this process and validate its results.”

Merck said it would work with independent experts to conduct a scientific audit, monitoring the process of feeding of Zilmax, and following identified cattle from the feedyard to the packing plant to determine potential causes of lameness and other mobility issues during feeding, transportation, offloading and staging at the processing facility.

It also planned to conduct a thorough review of potential compounding factors including nutrition, transportation and receiving facilities, a statement said.

“We sincerely regret that this situation creates business challenges for our customers,” a Merck R&D spokesman said. “But it is critical to ensure that this process is conducted appropriately and with rigorous scientific measures. After the five-step plan is completed, the results will be shared publicly.”

“We remain confident in the safety of the product, based on our own extensive research and that of regulators and academic institutions and are committed to the well-being of the animals that receive it,” the statement said.

Both Merck and the US National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) said there was no scientific evidence linking Zilmax to the issues that Tyson Foods had earlier outlined.

“Cattlemen and women believe in making decisions about the use of animal health products like beta-agonists based on science, not speculation,” NCBA said.

“At this time, there is no scientific basis for saying the use of beta-agonists caused the animal welfare concerns cited by Tyson in their decision to stop buying cattle fed Zilmax,” it said.

However, when concerns about the use of beta-agonists and cattle well-being surfaced in sporadic anecdotal reports, NCBA convened the world’s top animal welfare experts, including Dr Temple Grandin, to review the science and compare it to real-life observations.

Over recent months NCBA had reviewed numerous scientific studies, gathered input from cattle feeders using the products and sought to understand any possible correlation between the use of beta-agonists and reported animal welfare issues, it said.

The goal was to fully understand how the use of these products impacted animal welfare in real-life conditions.

“If this process determines the current use of beta-agonists is compromising animal welfare, NCBA will take appropriate action to ensure that every animal raised for food receives the proper care it deserves. The five-step plan announced by Merck will accelerate this process while ensuring that every feedyard worker handling Zilmax is properly trained and certified to use the product.”

In committing to re-train and re-certify every customer using Zilmax, Merck was going above and beyond what was required to ensure its product was used responsibly, NCBA said.

Merck’s company-imposed product ban may be a pre-emptive move over possible negative coverage of Zilmax in the mainstream and social media, analyst Steve Kay from Cattle Buyers Weekly suggested on Friday.

Zilmax is one of two beta agonists widely used in finishing cattle in the US. Up to 80 percent of all fed cattle in the US are said to receive either Zilmax or another beta agonist feed additives, Optaflexx.




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