Beef on Drugs

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The folks who feed and process the steak that eventually arrives on your table have added another chemical to the list that has already brought you antibiotic-resistant bacteria and arsenic in the water supply. Four companies — Tyson foods, JBS SA, Cargill and National Beef Packing Co. — sell 85% of the beef in the U.S. As of this writing they are now all using Zilmax, a drug originally developed to treat asthma, to make the animals they feed produce more muscle and less fat. To its credit, Cargill resisted using it for years (reportedly because of quality concerns), but finally caved because everyone else was doing it. Of course, they don’t call it a drug; they call it a “feed supplement.” Zilmax means the meat companies make about $30 extra per animal.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

First, all drugs have side effects. Zilmax increases the CPK and creatinine levels in the animal. CPK is a measure of muscle damage, used to evaluate whether you’ve had a heart attack or severe muscle injury. A high serum creatinine can mean you’re dehydrated, or it can mean your kidneys are shutting down. Somehow, the appearance of these changes in an animal intended for human consumption doesn’t fill me with confidence in the quality of the meat.

Second, Zilmax also affects the humans who are adding it to the feed bunks. The FDA says agricultural workers should wear protective clothing — that means completely cover the body — to prevent skin contact and should avoid inhaling the dust. If you’re exposed to the stuff it can make your blood pressure drop precipitately, your heart race and your muscles shake. Oh, and it’s irritating to the eyes.

Third, it’s that fat that makes the meat taste good. Marbling makes beef more tender, juicy and flavorful, so if you eliminate the fat, guess what happens to the meat?

So, in one fell swoop, the meat packers have decreased the quality of their product, exposed their employees to potential hazard and damaged the animals eating the stuff. Nobody knows if there are long-term effects for the humans who eat this beef, since Zilmax has only been in use for a few years.

Sounds like a really dumb idea to me. How about you?

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