© 2023
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Global demand for food and fuel is rising, and competition for resources has widespread ramifications. We all eat, so we all have a stake in how our food is produced. Our goal is to provide in-depth and unbiased reporting on things like climate change, food safety, biofuel production, animal welfare, water quality and sustainability.

How An Animal Growth Promoter Is Affecting Overseas Trade

Peggy Lowe
Harvest Public Media

So I got my serious #agnerd geek on this month in looking at the continuing story in the beef industry about using a controversial growth promoter to bulk up cattle.

I’ve been watching this story since Tyson, one of the top four beef producers in the U.S., announced it would no longer be buying cattle treated with Zilmax, a drug that can add another 30 pounds on an animal just before slaughter.

Other companies soon followed – all citing scattered reports of animal welfare issues. Cattle treated with the drug became lame and lethargic, and there were problems at the packing houses. The drug’s maker, Merck Animal Health, pulled the drug and is now auditing its use.

So during a visit to Colorado, I stopped at Ordway Feedyard and talked to manager Tyler Karney. He runs an enormous feedlot out on the eastern plains – some 6,500 Holsteins on 2,000 acres. My story about Tyler’s use of Zilmax is here.

Now that it’s off the market, Tyler’s switched to Optaflexx – another growth promoter used to bulk up animals for more pounds and profits. Zilmax and Optaflexx are part of a family of drugs called beta-agonists – Zilmax in generic form is zilpaterol, Optaflexx is ractopamine.

Why are the beta-agonists interesting? Well, there are several billion reasons why – most of those about international trade.

Some 160 countries ban the use of beta-agonists in beef and pork production, most often because the countries determined the drug can affect human health, such as creating rapid heart rates. The bans have created several trade barriers, most recently when Russia refused any U.S. imports unless they are ractopamine-free.   

So it certainly piqued my interest when last month, the USDA announced its new “never fed beta-agonist” certification. It’s the latest addition to the government’s program that includes other marketing claims, such as cage free, organic or free range.

So that could help open up some foreign markets again, right? Philip Karsting with the USDA’s foreign agricultural service told me that it’s hard to say.

“We don’t know until we figure out how many people are signing up for it, how soon they would make a transition to it and it still depends on how the Russians react to this beat-agonist free framework,” he said.

U.S. officials – and many in the cattle industry – bristle at the talk about banning beta-agonists, especially in Russia. As Karsting pointed out, there are already international standards for the use of beta-agonists. That was set in place in July 2012 by CODEX, which sets international standards for food, on what’s called acceptable “maximum residue levels.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem in the first place,” Karsting said. “But if we’re going to sell overseas, we’ll try to get people what they need, what they want, or what they think they need and want, and so that’s what this effort was about.”

What’s next in this story? I think it will be interesting to watch if Russia reacts and starts accepting U.S. grown beef. And I wonder if consumers will care about this issue. Would there ever be a “never fed beta-agonist” label? Again, hard to say.

Peggy Lowejoined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.
Related Content
  • When the popularity of catfish moved from the South across the U.S. in the 1980s, American catfish farmers could barely keep up with demand. But Vietnam has flooded the U.S. market with cheaper catfish, driving many catfish farms out of business and sparking a dispute that threatens a major trade deal.
  • Some of the worst-paid farmers in Ethiopia were able to get their bean to the specialty coffee ball and sell to top U.S. roasters like Stumptown. But it only happened after the growers got organized and attracted the attention of coffee prospectors from the U.S.
  • U.S. and EU officials begin talks Monday on a free-trade deal that could create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in new trade. But there are deep-seated differences that may make it difficult to reach an accord. Among the most contentious: agriculture and whether genetically modified crops grown in the U.S. will be accepted in Europe.
  • The USDA has quietly ended a ban on processed chicken imports from China. The products won't require a country-of-origin label — which means there's no way to know whether those chicken nuggets in the freezer aisle came from a country with a spotty food safety reputation.