Beta Agonists: The Dummying Down of Commodity Beef?

Our nation’s cattle supply is at a 60 year low, yet we are producing more edible beef today than sixty years ago. U.S. cattle numbers in 1980 were 111 million head producing 21 billion pounds of beef. In 2011, U.S. cattle numbers were 92 million head producing over 26 billion pounds of beef.

How do you get 19% more beef with 18% less cattle?  

Advances in genetics for breeding animals with higher carcass weights can be attributed in part to this issue. However, most of the responsibility of the more beef from less cattle debate points toward the use of growth promoters, such as growth hormones or steroids used on cattle.

While consumer demand for “all natural” animal proteins (without added hormones or antibiotics) has dramatically increased over the last five years, over 30 FDA approved growth-promoting products are currently being used in livestock production. Of these, there is increasing use of a class of growth promoting agents called “beta agonists” that are neither growth hormones nor antibiotics.

Beta Agonists in Cattle Production

Originally developed for the treatment of asthma in humans (think about that a moment), beta agonists were first approved by the FDA for use in cattle ten years ago. They are a growth promoter which mimics the effect of naturally occurring hormones at the cellular level but do not affect the hormone status of the animal.

Beta agonists act as a repartitioning agent in livestock changing the metabolism of the animal by converting feed energy into muscle versus fat. Animals pack on the pounds in result – as much as 25-30% more lean mass than fat. The two most common beta agonists used on beef cattle are:

Optaflexx™ (ractopamine hyperchloride) and Zilmax™ (zilpaterol hydrochloride).

Cattle nearing maturity naturally begin to deposit additional fat and less muscle during the final days of the feeding period.

Cattle who are fed Zilmax™ or Optaflexx™ during the last 20-40 days of their finishing period, demonstrate a feed-to-gain ratio increase of 10-25%; their muscle gain increases while their fat deposition reduces at the same time.

In other words, these animals swell up fast with muscle versus fat. Their weight goes up, but the quality of the meat arguably goes down.

Good Beef Economics vs. Lower Beef Quality

Feedlot operators who use beta agonists in feed are able to produce more meat without more feed in less time. On average, 30+ extra pounds of meat per animal which translates to as much as $30 more per head when sold to beef packers. Higher production output in less time and at less expense drives the economy of scale.

Today’s major beef packers, Tyson, JBS, Cargill and National Beef, all accept cattle that are fed beta agonists. These companies supply about 85% of the commodity beef in the marketplace. They determine how much to pay for cattle based on factors such as cattle weight and fattiness. The more lean muscle versus fat, the more they will pay for an animal because that is where they can make the most money.

While beta agonists may be good for the economics of beef, many believe they are bad for the quality and flavor of beef. The most notable affects to quality being, marbling and loin size.

Marbling Cattle fed beta agonists generally produce more lean muscle but with less marbling, taste and juiciness. When there is more intramuscular marbling, the USDA grade is higher; the higher the USDA grade, the better the flavor, tenderness and eating experience.

Common use of beta agonists may result in the marginalization of beef into higher percentages of lower choice and select grades. This in turn, may drive up prices for desirable higher choice and prime grades that are preferred by fine restaurants and steak lovers.

Loin Size Most chefs and restaurateurs want to serve a nice thick juicy steak while at the same time using portion control to manage food costs. Bigger cattle have bigger muscles; bigger muscles give you thinner steaks with portion control cuts.

The average weights of middle meats, such as rib eyes, strip loins and short loins, have been increasing over the years. (You can get a thicker 16 oz. steak from lighter loin than from heavier loin.) When cattle are heavier, it becomes harder to find lighter sized loins in the commodity beef market. In this scenario consumers will pay more for smaller sized loins because they will be in less supply.

Are Beta Agonists Here to Stay?

The FDA approved the use of beta agonists in swine back in 1999, for cattle in 2003 and for turkeys in 2008. Unlike swine or poultry whose litters have short maturation periods, cows are only able to have one calf at a time over a nine month gestation time frame. It takes another two years then for that calf to reach maturity. Consequently, it takes a long time to build a herd of cattle.  The use of beta agonists accelerates beef production somewhat compensating for the natural slow growth time.

To date, there are over 160 countries including Russia, China and the European Union, which have banned ractopamine the active ingredient in Optaflexx™. There are 20+ other countries, such as Japan, South Korea and the United States, which continue the approved use of beta agonists.

Whether beta agonists are a better way to feed the masses or simply a vehicle for making more money with blander beef remains debatable. Consumer demand will ultimately decide the fate of the use of beta agonists in livestock. If demand for commodity beef remains constant or increases, the use of beta agonists are likely here to stay.

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From the desk of John Cecala  Twitter @Buedel Fine Meats  Facebook  Buedel Fan Page