On the Horns of a Dilemma

— by Lee Pitts

For me, the hardest part of being a writer is not writer’s block, not knowing what to put on a piece of paper. It’s not knowing what not to write. For example, do you reveal an industry dirty little secret as part of a journalistic endeavor to inform the readership, knowing that you could also be giving ammunition to the enemy? Or do you keep quiet, even if it’s a ticking time bomb?

A Lot To Lose

After our story and a follow-up, an advertisement appeared on Reuters/PR Newswire electronic bulletin board in New York’s Time Square that was critical of beta agonists. Our dirty little secret was out and I wondered, was I the tattle-tale?

The ad said that the message was brought to New Yorkers, and therefore the world, by a national consumer group calling itself Beef Additive Alert™. If you think that sounds like some militant vegetarian hate group you could not be more wrong. Beef Additive Alert™ was the brainchild of two beef industry giants who have a LOT more to lose than one insignificant writer like myself. If I had doubts about divulging information that might harm the beef industry, just consider the agonizing doubts the two men who paid for the ads must have had. After all, these two men have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the beef industry and they placed their sterling reputations on the line. Their desire to do the right thing trumped everything.

After our first story on beta agonists ran I expected to hear from feedlot owners who insisted they needed the beta agonists in order to compete and in order to provide food for a hungry world. So when I heard from my friend Gerald Timmerman and Harvey Dietrich I thought I might be in for a good scolding. To my surprise, I learned that these two cattle industry giants hated beta agonists more than I did. And they were willing to bet their life’s work on the idea that we’d better clean up our act before someone else does it for us.

Nothing Left To Prove

At this stage of their lives Harvey Dietrich and Gerald Timmerman have nothing left to prove. Harvey is a self-made man who went from cleaning water troughs in a feedlot to being one of the biggest ranchers in the country, and owner of a beef packing plant known far and wide for the quality of its meat. Gerald Timmerman is likewise involved in all phases of the cattle business including a packing plant also known for it’s high quality beef. So you can see, they have a lot of other stuff to worry about besides feed additives. Serious stuff. Gerald Timmerman is battling throat cancer, for example. Yet they are fighting the bata agonist battle because they want an industry that does not depend on performance-enhancing drugs or feed additives to boost profits at the expense of quality.

Gerald Timmerman is a third generation rancher who, along with his brothers, own and operate ranches and feedlots in Nebraska, South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado, Texas and Oregon. Gerald’s grand-folks emigrated from Germany to Cuming County, Nebraska, in the 1880s and started the enterprise that would one day become a giant. When Gerald’s father’s health turned bad, the four Timmerman sons purchased the business in 1965 and expanded it to Timmerman & Sons Feedlots, The Timmerman Land and Cattle Company, farms and their partnership in Nebraska Beef.

(On a personal note I should acknowledge my bias. For over 20 years I helped Western Video Market sell a half million cattle per year and in doing so I had the good fortune to become friends with Gerald. There’s not anyone in the packing and feeding business who I respect and admire more. At the same time, I sure wouldn’t want to be involved in a fight, judicially or physically, opposing Gerald. If Merck thought they had trouble with one snoopy reporter, they have no idea what it’s like to bring down the wrath of one angry cattle-feeding German from Nebraska.)

In his typical blunt manner Gerald says this about beta agonists: “No amount of drug maker-sponsored study or 5-step PR spin campaign will convince us that beta agonists belong in beef production. We hope processors continue to resist accepting Zilmax-fed cattle for animal welfare, and to preserve USA beef quality, consistency and integrity.”

Gerald’s founding partner in Beef Additive Alert™ is another industry stalwart. Harvey Dietrich is being honored this year by Oklahoma City’s Cowboy Hall of Fame with one of its highest honors. The Chester A. Reynolds Award is presented to a living honoree or group that has notably perpetuated the legacy of the American West. It is a well deserved honor. For the past 31 years Harvey has operated The Diamond A Ranch which is the largest cattle ranch in Arizona, covering 750,000 acres. His Cholla Cattle Co. has been a major player for decades. Harvey started at age 15 as a laborer in a LA packinghouse, feeding, cleaning water troughs and unpinning shrouds from cow carcasses before moving up the ranks to cattle buyer. Eventually he became such a valuable employee he got a percentage of profits.

In addition to the ranch operations, this tenacious entrepreneur went on to co-launch Sun Land Beef in Arizona as the operating partner. Harvey developed a one-of-a-kind cattle feeding and marketing program that changed the beef industry in the West forever.

Sun Land Beef collaborated with 165 Ralphs Grocery Stores and they hired meat scientists to find out why the beef then being sold in grocery stores was so tough. Their findings enabled Sun Land Beef to sign agreements with feeders and retailers to produce a superior product ranchers could be proud of.

Says Harvey, “The consumers here and abroad do not want their food produced with lab-produced chemicals, coupled with no food labeling and lack of transparency. Beta agonists tend to reduce marbling. Steaks taste tougher, are less juicy and tender.”

Hitting The Fan

Even though beta agonists have been around since 2007, we ran our first story about them in our February 2014 issue. After that story ran you could say the proverbial manure hit the fan. In early autumn of the same year, Merck Animal Health suspended its Zilmax® cattle feed additive in the United States and Canada after a videotape surfaced showing animals that were fed Zilmax® in distress, with hoof problems and lameness that required cattle to be destroyed. Reuters, the international news gathering agency, did several investigative articles on beta agonists.

Comments from Professor Temple Grandin also surfaced in the Wall Street Journal, CNN, MSNBC and Fox outlets in which she said she had observed heat stress, lameness, hoof problems and aggressiveness in feedlot cattle fed beta agomists. “In hot weather, I have seen open mouth panting and a few animals were non-ambulatory after fed beta agonists.”

Even more importantly to the halt of Zilmax® sales, the nation’s leading meat packers, led by Tyson, stopped buying cattle fed the feed additive due to their animal welfare concerns. Then Reuters reported that a second major meat packer, JBS USA, showed a video at a cattle industry conference that showed cattle at a JBS plant having difficulty walking after they were fed beta-agonists.

On March 11, 2014, Reuters publicized a Texas Tech and Kansas State University study titled “U.S. Cattle Deaths Linked to Zilmax Far Exceeded Company Reports.”

Even after all this, and their own suspension of Zilmax® sales, Merck emphasized that their product was safe when used as directed.

After Merck stopped the sale of Zilmax®, most cattle feeders simply switched to a competing beta agonist from Elanco called Optaflexx, also known as ractopamine. You’ve probably read about it lately as 27 countries of the European Union, China, Taiwan, Russia & 160 other other countries banned the importation of meat produced with ractopamine. South Korea found U.S. imported beef with traces of beta agonists in it.

On The Comeback Trail

We speculated at the time of its suspension from the market that Merck was not going to give up that easily on Zilmax® which was worth $159 million a year to them. They were laying low, waiting for the heat to die down, but ever since Merck suspended Zilmax® sales they have been trying to re-introduce the FDA-approved product.

Merck announced that they had initiated a five step plan to bring the bottom-line friendly, Zilmax® back to the market. A press release was issued, there was an online ad campaign to direct people to a “Responsible Beef” website, a lower dose re-labeling alternative was proposed along with the certification of people who administered the feed additive. The Wall Street Journal reported that Merck had also planned a 250,000 head cattle study but it failed to materialize due to beef processor uneasiness.

Merck’s press release read, “The totality of the comprehensive review supported that Zilmax® is safe when used according to the product label and in conjunction with sound animal husbandry practices. The research results and industry data showed that cattle weights, and thus feed consumption rates, have been steadily increasing over time. This created the possibility that certain cattle could consume feed quantities that result in ingestion of Zilmax® in an amount that exceeds the approved dose. The review also noted that enhanced label language – coupled with the implementation of comprehensive certification requirements and a thorough best practices program – will ensure that usage of Zilmax® remains compliant with the label.”

The Other Alternative

After Fortune Magazine discovered beta agonists they’reported that, “Zilmax’s exit from the U.S. market did not spell the end of cattle-growth drugs. It simply led to renewed interest in ractopamine. That is, cattle producers are now substituting a drug that the FDA reports has already been linked to nearly a quarter million adverse events in pigs – more than any other animal drug.”

The organization this reporter was most afraid would get hold of the beta agonsist issue and use it to their advantage was The Humane Society of the United States, never a friend of the rancher. Sure enough, Wayne Pacelle the President and CEO of HSUS wrote an article titled “Ractopamine: It’s What’s for Dinner” in which he said “the drug’s safety assessment involved just one human study, of six healthy young men, one of whom dropped out after his heart began racing and pounding abnormally. But in America, ractopamine is legal and administered to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of American pigs, with residues often finding their way into supermarket pork.”

Concluded Pacelle, “The meat industry’s fanatical devotion to a drug that boosts growth rates at the cost of all other concerns – animal welfare, the environment, and perhaps even human health – only makes sense when you consider the industry’s mindset. For factory farmers, there’s always been one frustrating limit to their ability to ramp up meat production while slashing costs: the animal’s natural biology. He accused the cattle industry of cutting corners “in a never-ending quest for greater yield and profits.”

The result of all the publicity was that HSUS and several other public interest organizations, including the Center for Food Safety, sued the FDA over “its repeated, reflexive approval of animal drugs containing ractopamine.” According to their lawsuit, “The FDA has repeatedly approved ractopamine drugs based on pro forma assurances from the drug’s sponsors, and U.S. trade negotiators have even lobbied other nations to stop regulating ractopamine.”

The lawsuit claims that the FDA approved the beta agonist class of drugs without fully examining if they were safe for the environment, animals or people and “asks the Court to set aside FDA’s unlawful approvals.”

Cattle or Chemicals?

On February 19 Canada okayed a new, lower dose labeling option for Zilmax® and Merck seemed to be on track for the re-release of Zilmax® in the U.S., despite the fact that at least one of the major packers has allegedly said they still don’t want Zilmax® fed cattle.

As for those of us who went to war on the issue of beta agonists, I think our attitude is best summed up by The Cowboy Hall of Fame honoree, Harvery Dietrich. “We think FDA-approved beta agonists do not belong in the beef industry. In addition to animal welfare, we are also concerned about decreased quality and tenderness. We are in the beef business, not the chemical business. Beef Additive Alert™ would prefer a beta agonist-free beef industry. For consumers. For animal well-being. For our economy. The USA boasts having the world’s premiere beef. Let’s keep it that way.”