I recently wrote about the use of Beta Agonists in the nation’s cattle supply. [See Beta Agonists: The Dummying Down of Commodity Beef?] Last week Tyson Foods (NYSE:TSN), which provides 26% of the U.S. beef supply, notified cattle feeders that as of September 6th, the company would no longer purchase animals that had been given Zilmax (zilpaterol) a drug added to feed which accelerates weight gain by as much as 30 pounds just before slaughter. Recent reports of cattle being delivered for processing that couldn’t walk or move were cited as a cause for the move.
The company that manufactures Zilmax (Merck) issued a statement saying the benefits and safety of Zilmax are well documented. “The experience reported by Tyson is not attributable to Zilmax. Indeed, Tyson itself points to the fact that there are other possible causes and that it does not know the specific cause of the issues it recently experienced.”
What’s most intriguing about this play by Tyson is they did not say they would also stop buying animals given Optaflexx, the competitive market drug to Zilmax. It kind of makes you wonder: Was this a sincere move by a mega-meat merchandiser to show they genuinely care about animal welfare, or simple politicking by Tyson to make it easier for them to export beef to countries that prefer beta agonist free beef?
If Tyson’s rationale is indeed generated on behalf of animal welfare, why then didn’t they address the use of added growth hormones and the sub therapeutic use of antibiotics in addition to Optaflexx? All tools used to help animals gain weight faster, the company’s rationale for singling out just one drug seems suspect at the least.
Profit vs. Welfare
My guess is this situation is more about money than animal welfare. Tyson Foods is a $3B publicly traded company responsible for generating returns for its shareholders. Exporting is a large market opportunity for companies like Tyson. This announcement was released just after their earnings report, which included statements about the opportunity to grow and provide high-quality, food-safe products with China.
China and many countries in the European Union have banned the use of these drugs in meat production. In May, Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, announced it would cut in half its purchase of animals raised with a similar drug, ractopamine. About a week later, Smithfield announced its sale to a Chinese company.
Could it be that Tyson is also posturing benefit from the pending Asia-Pacific trade agreement being negotiated with the U.S.? The trade agreement, known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), is about to start its “19th round of negotiations” later this month in Brunei.
There are over 600,000 head of cattle harvested per week in the U.S., and none of the other major beef producers such as JBS, National Beef, or Cargill have yet to follow Tyson’s move. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out over time.