Beta-agonists, Zilmax and Optaflexx, and Cattle: How Targeted Use Results in Leaner Beef

Myth: Beta-agonists cause cattle to grow unnaturally large and are bad for my health.

The Facts: Zilmax and Optaflexx, which are beta-agonists, are animal feed ingredients that help cattle make the most of the food they eat resulting in more lean muscle instead of fat. They have been proven safe for cattle and humans.

Cattle farmers use these feed additives in targeted ways, only adding small amounts to the animals’ feed at a specific time in their lives. They are metabolized quickly by cattle so they are not stored in the body over time. Beta-agonists are approved for use in the United States, Canada and two dozen other countries across the developed world.

Get the top five facts behind beta-agonists in cattle:

1. What are beta-agonists and what do they do? A beta-agonist is simply a feed ingredient given to some cattle to help the animals make the most of the food they eat (ractopamine and zilpaterol are examples of beta agonists approved for use in cattle). When cattle are young, they use their food to build muscle, but as they age they begin to instead put on more fat. Beta-agonists help cattle maintain their natural muscle-building ability, resulting in the leaner beef that consumers demand.

2. How and why are they used? Beta-agonists, a feed additive, can be used as part of a healthy, balanced diet for cattle according to label guidelines. The decision to use this feed ingredient is an individual one that every farmer/rancher/feedyard manager makes in consultation with their veterinarian and animal nutritionist.

  • Many factors guide the decision to use beta-agonists, including type and condition of cattle, customer expectations (yield and quality grades), as well as leanness, weather or seasonal conditions, which may affect cattle health and growth.
  • A farm’s environmental goals are also considered because these feed ingredients reduce the farm’s demand on natural resources like land, water, feed and fuel.

Feedyard owner and operator Anne Burkholder of Cozad, Nebraska explains beta-agonists and why she chooses to use them.

3. Do they harm the animal? Animal welfare is a top priority. All animal health products are reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prior to use in animals to ensure there are no adverse impacts on animal health. Caring for their animals and making sure they grow healthfully is important to the people who raise cattle. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is in the farmers’ and ranchers’ best interest, too. It’s as simple as this – healthy animals produce high-quality meat.

  • In a feedyard, professional cowboys called “pen riders” ride horseback among their cattle to observe the health of every animal daily to make sure they are getting the care they need.

4. How do I know they are safe? All products used in food animals must go through dozens of studies and be shown to be safe for both animals and humans before approval by the FDA.

In the case of beta-agonists, hundreds of studies have been done. But the evaluation does not stop there.  After animal health products are approved, they are continuously monitored to improve their performance and how they are used. And, since beta-agonists are metabolized quickly by cattle, they aren’t stored in the body over time.

  • The safety of meat from animals fed ractopamine (a beta-agonist) has been affirmed by 28 regulatory bodies, including the international food standards body Codex Alimentarius Commission, which was created by the World Health Organization.
  • The U.S. Food Safety and Inspective Service (FSIS) routinely tests meat to ensure its safety.

5. Do beta-agonist fed cattle still produce quality beef? Yes. Today’s beef increasingly meets consumer expectations for a great-tasting meal. The entire beef community is committed to raising the highest-quality beef possible and consistently providing people with great-tasting beef. Learn more about how beef quality is measured.

  • Over the past 20 years, overall beef quality grades (such as Prime or Choice) have steadily improved, thanks to cattle genetics, the way cattle are fed and proper cattle handling to prevent stress.

If you prefer beef from cattle that was not fed a beta-agonist, there are great beef choices available for you in the grocery store. Products labeled USDA organic or “naturally-raised” would not have received any growth promoting product like a beta-agonist. Regardless of the type of beef you choose, you can feel confident that it’s safe, delicious and nutritious.

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