Feedlot association to let market sort out Zilmax flap

Tyson Foods’ decision to stop buying cattle given the feed additive Zilmax is sending waves through the beef industry, but Canada’s feedlot sector is determined to stay the course.

“Our position is to follow science and let the market decide. Full stop,” said Brian Walton, chair of the National Cattle Feeders Association.

His organization doesn’t track use of Zilmax or other beta-agonists, but Walton said it’s “pretty common” in feedlots in Western Canada, as is a slightly different growth promoter by a competing manufacturer called OptaFlexx.

“Science has already proven that it’s safe to use and effective, so it should be the choice of the producers and their customers,” said Walton.

The announcement of Tyson’s new policy was followed by the showing of a video by a JBS USA official at a recent industry conference in Denver. Taken at a JBS plant, it shows animals having difficulty walking and demonstrating signs of lameness. Animal welfare expert Temple Grandin, who was present at the event, said the cows “walked like 90-year-old grandmothers.”

Last week, Merck, the manufacturer of Zilmax, said it was suspending sales pending an audit of how the product was being used.

Zilmax, also known as zilpaterol, is based on a chemical originally developed to alleviate asthma symptoms and is reputed to add as much as 30 pounds of extra beef per head when used late in the finishing period. Optaflexx, made by Eli Lilly, is a ractopamine-based additive that is fed earlier and Tyson, which slaughters one in four cattle raised in the U.S., has said it will continue to buy cattle fed that product.

Some industry observers speculate that Tyson may be attempting to position itself for greater export market share, given that China, Russia and Europe forbid meat imports from animals fed beta-agonists. With offal, or drop cuts, seen as a growing profit driver especially for exporters to Asia, dropping beta-agonists might eliminate a key obstacle for increased sales. Industry experts note Smithfield, a U.S.-based pork giant recently purchased by a Chinese firm, announced earlier this year that it would drop ractopamine, also known as Paylean, from half its herd.

The lion’s share of Canada’s beef slaughter capacity is handled by JBS at the former XL Foods plant in Brooks, Alta., and Cargill, which operates a plant in High River, Alta. Neither have followed Tyson’s lead, although some cattle do cross the border to Tyson facilities.

It’s “hard to say” whether the Tyson ban will hurt the Canadian industry, said Walton, adding the issue comes at a bad time for the western feedlot sector, which has been unprofitable for more than a year because of tight cattle supplies and high feed costs.

Trevor Atchison, president of the Manitoba Beef Producers, said Tyson’s ban might impact the local cow-calf sector because giving up the additive would increase finishing costs, and so could affect the prices they can afford to pay. However, the shortage of cattle should support prices in the near term, he said.

“How much will it affect the cow-calf guy? Time will tell,” he said.

Larry Schweitzer, owner of 24,000-head Hamiota Feedlot and vice-chair of the national feeders’ association, said his and other Manitoba operations wouldn’t be greatly affected because they specialize mainly in backgrounding calves.

Although he would use Zilmax if a customer requested it, his experience is mainly with Optaflexx, which is fed to finishers 21 days before slaughter, he said.

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