A new U.S. Department of Agriculture certification program for livestock producers may permit them to market their products with a special “Never Fed Beta Agonists” label. Beta agonists are feed additives used to increase muscle mass and promote weight gain in livestock animals. The drugs are typically added to feed along with vitamins and given to animals while they’re in feedlots for a few weeks before slaughter. Producers would be required to document to USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service that they haven’t given growth enhancers to their animals and that the meat contains no residues of the controversial drugs. If successful, the new certification program could open up previously closed or restricted markets in Russia, South Korea, China, Taiwan and possibly others to U.S. meat imports. Commonly used growth-enhancing drugs in the beta-agonist family include ractopamine, which is fed to hogs, and zilpaterol, which is fed to cattle. Clenbuterol, another beta agonist, reportedly induces unintended side effects in humans and has been banned for use in food animals in the U.S., Canada, Taiwan and Hong Kong. In February 2013, Russia prohibited the importation of meat containing ractopamine and now only allows pork and beef into the country with confirmation that it is free of any traces of the drug. The value of U.S. beef exports to Russia in 2012 alone was estimated at $300 million, while this year’s have plummeted to a fraction of that record level. “Although Russia’s position on ractopamine has been on the books for some time, they really only started enforcing it last fall,” said Thad Lively, senior vice president for trade access with the U.S. Meat Export Federation. “Russia contends that it closed the market because the U.S. government did not come forward with a program for shipping beef from cattle that hadn’t been fed ractopamine. Russia has imposed new requirements and restrictions on beef from other suppliers as well, but the extreme step of closing the market only applies to the U.S.” Trademarked beta agonists include Zilmax and Optaflexx, with one of the two being administered to 70-80 percent of the U.S. cattle herd in 2012, according to some estimates. Optaflexx, sold by Eli Lilly’s Elanco animal-health unit, is considered less effective than Zilmax. Merck Animal Health pulled Zilmax off the market in August of this year in order to audit its use. Merck officials denied that there were any safety issues associated with Zilmax, but a video showing cattle having trouble walking after being fed beta-agonist drugs raised concerns after it was presented that same month at an industry conference in Denver by JBS USA, a major U.S. meat packer. Just before Merck suspended sales of Zilmax, Tyson Foods announced that, starting Sept. 6, it would no longer buy any cattle given Zilmax because cattle had been delivered to its plants having trouble walking or being unable to move. “We do not know the specific cause of these problems, but some animal health experts have suggested that the use of the feed supplement Zilmax, also known as zilpaterol, is one possible cause,” Tyson officials stated in a letter to U.S. feedlot operators. Dr. Temple Grandin, the well-known professor of animal science at Colorado State University, has indicated that she believes some animals fed beta agonists consequently suffer from stiff muscles and sore feet, problems which become particularly evident between the feedlot and the packing plant. To reduce such problems, she advised feedlots to separate out larger cattle and not feed them beta agonists, mix animal feed well, add roughage to feed, avoid handling animals during the heat of the day, and practice “low-stress, calm handling techniques.” “In conclusion, problems with stiff, sore-footed cattle must be stopped. The industry can’t allow stiff, lame cattle to become a new ‘bad becoming normal,'” Grandin stated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been working with Merck and USDA to assess safety issues Zilmax may pose. In addition to approving the use of Zilmax and Optaflexx, FDA has approved Paylean (ractopamine for pigs) and Topmax (ractopamine for turkeys). In December 2012, animal-rights and food-safety groups petitioned FDA to lower the allowed residue limits for ractopamine and study the drug’s effects on human health and animal welfare. “The continued use and abuse of ractopamine in our food supply needs to be put in check,” said Elisabeth Holmes, staff attorney at the Center for Food Safety, which filed the 37-page petition in concert with the Animal Legal Defense Fund.