Sunday, September 1, 2013


There is a good chance, that beef prices will be going up soon in the U.S. So, if you are a red meat eater, you may want to enjoy your cheap beef while you can. Or, maybe not.

The reason for a possible price increase is a reported shortage of beta-agonists (B-agonists). These are naturally occurring and synthetic compounds that are classified as phenethanolamines . They are put in the feed of most American beef cows. The beef industry argues that they are nothing more than "simple feed ingredients". But, most people think of them as "growth-promotants."

The beef and pharmaceutical industries estimate that about 70 percent of cattle brought to the slaughterhouse in the United States are fed beta-agonists. (They are also used in pork production in the U.S.). These "feed ingredients" help cattle make the most of the food they eat, resulting in more lean muscle instead of fat. (Is this the basis for the next diet drug for humans?). But they also help beef cattle farmers save on cattle feed, which accounts for almost three-quarters of their costs. Yes, nice. No wonder the industry loves them. They can produce more beef with less cattle. And, increase their profits.

By the way, back in 1989, the European Union (EU) banned all B-agonists for use in meat animals. As usual, the United States bowed to industry pressure. But who is to lose, since these growth-promotants or feed ingredients or whatever you call them, have been shown by numerous studies to neither harm the cattle or humans who eat the meat?

Or, do they? Recently there has been some re-thinking of this issue. What happened is that it was noticed that many cattle who had been fed the most popular beta-agonist, called Zilmax, which is produced by Merck, were turning up for slaughter lame, or, pretty close to lame. Now that's a major problem. In March 2009, the USDA, in the interest of food safety, banned the slaughter of so-called "downer"cattle (those too sick or lame to walk).

The "factory" cattle farmers are nervous. Even more so after mid-August, when Merck suspended its sales of this very lucrative product (just under 160 million dollars in the past year alone. The suspension covered both the United States and Canada. But don't for a moment imagine that that is the end of it.

Eli Lilly, another big pharma making beta-agonist was (secretly) delighted. The demand for their similar drug, called Optaflexx, has increased enormously. But - although there are contradictory reports - it seems that there will not be enough Optaflexx to go around, at least for a while. That means that some U.S. cattle farmers will have to go without. They would will have to feed the cattle more, and still get a less favorable price for them at the slaughterhouse, because of reduced weight gain. For us, consumers, that could well mean an increase in beef prices.

And what about the health implications of all this? Are those beta-agonists that are being fed to our cattle safe to eat, week after week, and year after year? After reading the research studies (sort-of mind boggling in their technicalities) I realize that this is a much more complex issue than reflected in recent news reports. There are beta-agonists, and then there are beta-agonists. What I am afraid of is that if there is a shortage of Optaflexx, and the suspension on Zilmax continues, desperate cattle farmers may turn to other illegal beta-agonists ("early-generation beta-agonists") which have been shown to be retained longer in the system and be more dangerous to cattle (liver, kidneys, heart, lungs), and maybe to humans.

That's factory food for you. It's all about money.

To your good health,


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