Got vitamin Z? Zilmax in beef

cowsThe beef industry is under pressure.  Feed prices are escalating, because

  • so much of the corn crop is being turned into ethanol
  • feed-producing regions are in a drought

Solution: Vitamin Z, the nickname for Zilmax, a drug that makes cattle gain muscle weight quickly.  Cattle can yield an extra $30-40 each, thanks to that extra weight.  But Merck, which manufacturers Zilmax, just halted sales.  And Tyson Foods will no longer accept cattle that were given Zilmax.  What’s the problem?  Distressed cattle.

Consider this description from the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) article “What’s Ailing America’s Cattle?”

“A growing number of cattle arriving for slaughter at U.S. meatpacking plants have recently shown unusual signs of distress. Some walked stiffly, while others had trouble moving or simply lay down, their tongues hanging from their mouths. A few even sat down in strange positions, looking more like dogs than cows.”

Could Zilmax and other quick-weight gain supplements be causing strange side effects?  Merck and Tyson aren’t waiting around for research to find out the answer.

While these drugs aren’t hormones, like the steroids some athletes take illegally, they have a similar effect.  Roughly 70% of the cattle sold in the U.S. are given similar weight gain drugs that pack on muscle tissue.  There’s some thought that meat from Zilmax animals doesn’t taste so great.  Sort of like those giant strawberries; they’re bred to be huge but end up tasteless.

Other than lack of flavor, the Zilmax question is this: after those cattle stumble into the slaughter house and are processed, are there residues or metabolites in the meat?  Answer: no one knows because no one has bothered to check.  A study to discover any such residues, and then investigate whether humans suffered any ill effects would be prohibitively expensive and go on and on for years.  Who would volunteer?  “Oh sure, I’ll eat the drug-treated meat every day for 30 years, no problem.”

But, since Zilmax has been used for almost 6 years, plenty of people have apparently eaten whatever residues there may have been.  Our per-person consumption of red meat is about 5 oz per day, or 2 lbs per week.  That may not sound like much, but it includes everybody, even children.  Some people eat little red meat, so there are other people making up the difference.

But you like beef.  What’s the solution?

  1. Eat less of it.  Unfortunately our cuisine is set up deliberately to make beef eating the easy default choice.  Fast food is all about burgers.  Even fast casual and sit down restaurants focus on burgers and steaks.  So eating less beef takes some effort and may be inconvenient.
  2. Choose grass fed beef, which isn’t treated with growth stimulating drugs.  Unfortunately for some people, it’s hard to find and will be more expensive.
  3. Buy from local farmers, who produce organic meat.  Again, this may be hard to find, unless you live in a cattle-producing region.  But the reward could be huge: local organic/grass fed beef tastes vastly better.
  4. Substitute bison for beef.  Bison is mostly grass fed, and doesn’t need growth stimulants.

Conclusion: Eat less beef, and when you do make it grass fed/organic/local.  It will taste so much better, you won’t miss those tasteless cheap burgers at all.

photo of Z-free Euro cows by Karen K Psiaki RD LDN

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