Blunderdrug: Growth Booster for Beef Cattle Rears Its Controversial Head–Again

Hay, Merck! We're fattening just fine as is.

Hay, Merck! We’re fattening just fine as is.


I thought we’d seen the last of Zilmax, a chemical given to feedlot cattle to make them pack weight in the weeks leading up to slaughter. Merck Animal Health, which sold the drug, called it a “beef-improving technology.”

Although the drug added 24 and 33 pounds to carcasses, it failed in the marketplace. Grocery chains didn’t want beef from Zilmax-fed cattle because consumers complained about lack of taste and toughness. Besides, nobody was clamoring for bigger cuts of beef. One meat department supervisor grumbled that he had to start using larger Styrofoam trays to accommodate the brontosaurus-sized T-bones.

What seemed like Zilmax’s death knell sounded in the summer of 2013 when beef giants Cargill and Tyson announced that they would no longer accept Zilmax-treated cattle, citing animal welfare concerns. Cattle fed with the stuff often arrived at the companies’ slaughterhouses with hooves so damaged by the drug that they were unable to walk to their deaths.

The European Union and China (not exactly a paragon of consumer protection) banned meat from animals treated with the drug because of human health concerns.

True to form, the United States Food and Drug Administration, which approved Zilmax in 2006 (and is charged with protecting our health) took absolutely no action, even though its original approval was based on studies by scientists who received funding from Merck.

The situation became so bad that Merck voluntarily pulled Zilmax from the market in August 2013.

But, as it turns out, the company was far from ready to say good riddance to a loser product.

Instead it implemented the “Zilmax Five-Step Plan for Responsible Beef” as a way to reintroduce the controversial drug to American herds. The plan took one giant step forward when the FDA approved a new method of administering the drug in October, paving the way for Merck to announce that it would launch “In Field Use Studies” with cattle farmers that the company has trained to administer Zilmax according to its specifications. The company’s hope is that these studies will “help support the return of Zilmax to the market place in the future.”

One more reason to eat grass-fed beef, in case you needed one.

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