Almost a month after sales of Merck & Co. Inc.’s major cattle weight gain drug Zilmax were suspended, Alachua County cattlemen and beef specialists are considering how the North Florida cattle industry will be affected.
Roger West, an Alachua County cattleman who cares for a herd of 300 cows, said the absence of Zilmax in feedlots would mean a minor decrease in total beef production. But if that beef shortage causes beef prices to go up, consumers may stray from Florida calves and the beef industry to move toward other alternatives.
“So that would affect us, and the price we receive for calves would go down,” West said. “Everything affects us, we just don’t know to what extent.”
The Florida cattle industry primarily supplies calves to feedlots in the Midwest, where cows are given feed and, in some cases, drugs like Zilmax or its less potent drug rival Optaflexx.
Zilmax is undergoing further testing to determine whether or not the drug causes immobility in cattle, as was suggested in a video released at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association meeting a few weeks ago in Denver.
After that meeting, Tyson Food Service announced it would no longer purchase Zilmax-fed cattle starting Friday.
“It is about animal well-being and ensuring the proper treatment of the livestock we depend on to operate,” Tyson Fresh Meats Inc. cattle procurement director John Gerber wrote in a letter to cattle feeders.
Owen Rae, professor and service chief in the large animal clinical sciences department at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, said the public’s reaction to possible Zilmax side effects and the suspension of the drug’s sales “may have been a bit of an overreaction.”
The supposed side effects in cattle could be caused by a number of natural occurrences, instead of just problems with the drug, Rae said.
“We’ve had some very unusual high temperatures, we’ve had drought, so a lot of changes in the kind of feed the animals are getting,” Rae said. “So that, in conjunction with the product being used, may very likely have been factors in seeing what’s being seen this year.”
Rae said he believes the Zilmax sale suspension wasn’t brought on by scientific study, but instead, it was decided out of concern for public relations.
Although only about 5 percent of Zilmax-fed cattle displayed tenderness of the feet and stiff-legged walking, there’s still a problem with the cattle well-being, West said.
“We’ve got to figure out is that a management problem, or is it something about the animals that is different,” he said. “If you see them walking around on sore feet, then people don’t like to see that, and we in the industry don’t like to see it.”
Though the drug is being investigated, there is no cause for consumers in North Central Florida to fear the use of weight gain drug use on cattle, said Chad Carr, assistant professor and extension meat specialist in the UF veterinary college’s animal sciences department.
Carr, a member of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said these weight gain drugs, also called beta agonists, are nothing new, and they are nothing to fear.
“What a product like this is, is it allows us to extend that growth curve, so that we deposit protein for a longer period of time prior to depositing fatness,” he said.
West said the result of beta agonists is a beef product that’s leaner with less fat, which is what consumers want. In the meantime, he said, Merck & Co. is taking the proper steps to investigate the Zilmax problems.
“I think they’re trying to find out why this is happening, and they’re pulling the product off the market until they find out,” he said. “So I think it’s pretty commendable that they’re willing to do that.”