Cargill, for instance, accepted Zilmax only grudgingly. Cargill’s own studies found that Zilmax can hurt beef quality, and for years the company had a policy of refusing to accept cattle treated with the drug. But by the middle of 2012 Cargill felt it had no choice but to accept Zilmax-treated cattle. Meatpackers like Cargill buy cattle from independent feedlots, and Cargill decided that too many feedlot managers were using Zilmax for the company to keep refusing to accept it.
“To keep our plants running and meet customer demand, we find ourselves in a position where we must harvest cattle that have been fed growth promotants” like Zilmax, Cargill spokesman Mike Martin said in a statement.
In turn, feedlot owners find themselves in a squeeze. Allan Sents, co-owner of McPherson County Feeders in Kansas, resisted using Zilmax for years. But now he’s worried he can’t afford to continue doing so. Sents raises about 11,000 cattle at a time on his feedlot and sells many of them to National Beef. National, like many other meatpackers, determines how much to pay for many of the cattle it buys based on a number of factors, including weight and the fattiness of their meat. Each National plant grades cattle against the average amount of meat on each carcass that it slaughters, Sents said. As more of Sents’ competitors use Zilmax, the average amount of meat on each carcass at the National plant is rising, leaving Sents behind. “In essence, you’re going to be discounted if you don’t use it,” Sents said of Zilmax.
(Tyson Foods spokesman Gary Mickelson said the company leaves it up to feedlot owners to decide if they want to use Zilmax, and that Tyson accepts cattle treated with the drug because it is approved by the FDA. JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett echoed those thoughts. Both companies said they are committed to producing quality beef. Neither company would say what proportion of the cattle they slaughter have been treated with Zilmax.)
Last year, the already battered cattle business faced a crisis. Drought caused grain and feed prices to hit record highs, and feeding cattle became too pricey to be profitable in many parts of the country. Many ranchers sold off their cows for slaughter prematurely rather than spend more money to fatten them up. The drought created a perfect opening for Zilmax. Now, drug salesmen are roving Middle America, pitching Zilmax as an antidote to hard times in cattle country. With Zilmax, a feedlot owner can get more meat from a cow without feeding it any additional grain or letting it drink any additional water. According to one Zilmax salesman, using the drug could help a feedlot owner make about $30 in additional profit per cow by adding about 33 pounds of extra meat to each carcass.
But the tradeoff between quantity and quality is one some insiders don’t think the cattle industry should be making. Among the more vocal critics of Zilmax is a prominent trade group, Certified Angus Beef, which was formed in 1978 in an effort to boost beef demand. Certified Angus Beef is a label awarded to beef that meets certain criteria, like being juicy, marbled, and flavorful. (Certain breeds naturally produce better-tasting beef, as do animals that are fed lots of corn.) The group’s standards are stringent—only the top 8 to 10 percent of all beef receives the group’s brand—and Certified Angus Beef President John Stika sees a push for higher quality as the industry’s best path to success. “Why do people buy beef? They don’t buy it because it’s cheap. They buy it because of its taste,” Stika said.
Stika has warned for years that using Zilmax could undermine long-term demand for beef. In a 2008 editorial in the industry magazine Beef, Stika wrote that the use of drugs like Zilmax reflects “a ‘pounds first’ heap of indifference to quality.” He understands that Zilmax might deliver short-term profits by boosting the amount of meat on every carcass, but he knows from experience that this might not help the industry in the long run. Stika points to years of declining beef demand as cattle producers tried to out-chicken the chicken business by producing more standardized, leaner meat at feedlots while trying to cut costs. “We didn’t gain market share by producing a lower quality product more affordably. We lost market share to other proteins,” Stika said.
Of course, Zilmax’s manufacturer claims the drug doesn’t affect quality, if used correctly. David Yates, a national account manager at Merck Animal Health, says many peer-reviewed studies that support his claim that there are no adverse affects on quality if Zilmax is used for 20 days, as the company recommends. It is impossible to determine how long any given feedlot actually feeds cattle Zilmax, because they don’t have to report it. Those studies, however, were funded by Intervet, the company that first developed Zilmax.
Yates also cited a study by Texas Tech University that found consumers couldn’t tell a difference between Zilmax-treated beef and non-Zilmax beef in a blind taste test involving 3,000 people. “Steaks from cattle fed Zilmax were as tender, as flavorful, and as juicy,” Yates said. A 2012 investigation by the Chronicle of Higher Education found that many academic researchers studying Zilmax get funding from Merck or Intervet—and indeed, the Texas Tech study mentioned by Yates was also funded by Intervet.
The debate over Zilmax’s impact on the beef quality is probably moot, though, seeing as administering the drug is becoming standard operating procedure at feedlots. What this means for consumers is that the American sirloin of tomorrow will be a lot more like the chicken breast of today. There will still be high-quality steaks, like those promoted by Certified Angus Beef, available in pricey restaurants or upscale grocery stores. But the rest of the beef market will continue to drift toward the middle-point, where meat is standardized, less flavorful, and in need of serious processing to taste good. Who knows—maybe a scientist somewhere is working on the Beef McNugget at this very moment.
Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.