What the heck is a beta agonist and why should you care?

Betaagonist.  Sounds like a character in a novel, protagonist, antagonist, betaagonist…..It isn’t, but we can certainly write a story about beta agonists. The story would have some big names in it, like Merck, Zilmax, and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  And, it would be about big money, food detectives might be the unlikely heros and it could impact who you buy your next KC strip steak from.

A beta agonist is a chemical that re-directs nutrient use in animals (and people) from one type of tissue, like fat, to another type of tissue, like muscle.  This characteristic makes it an ideal choice to promote growth or “gain”.  Livestock finishers are interested in efficient and cost effective “gain”, so beta agonists can be a part of the feed mix they use.  One of the most familiar beta agonists is zilpaterol, which is the active ingredient in the growth promotant that Merck makes called Zilmax.

There has been a lot of recent negative comments about beta agonists, such as animals showing signs of distress after being given the product; that if it is given too long, the animal becomes weaker due to the muscle cell enlargement and the animal can no longer support its weight properly; and that the ultimate meat product is tougher to eat and has lost its juiciness and flavor intensity.  Tyson announced early August 2013 it would no longer accept cattle to process that had been fed Zilmax and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange recently announced cattle treated with Zilmax could not be used to settle futures contracts.  Merck has halted sales of Zilmax.

So what does this mean for you? There are other beta agonists out there being used, such as ractopamine, which is in Optaflexx for cattle and Paylean for pigs.  You should be aware of this and get to know the folks you buy your meat from.  Do these chemicals affect the person eating the meat, the research is still going on.  Are beta agonists necessary?  No.  We don’t feed our cattle beta agonists.  We’ve selected two breeds of cattle, the Polled Hereford and the South Poll Grass Cattle bred and the genetics within these breeds to raise cattle that finish in a forage-based(grass) system.  Cattle finishers and feedlot owners could keep their cattle on forage longer and minimize the grain, growth promotants and other additives needed.  Cattle would be healthier and happier and the meat you eat would be better for you.  It is very frustrating knowing there are better feeding systems out there and wondering why cattle finishers and feedlots insist on using conventional feeding systems.  I guess that is why I only eat our beef!  Something to think about.

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