Halt in Zilmax sales fuels demand for alternatives

Merck temporarily suspends product | Other feed additive makers are taking up the slack after Tyson Foods refused Zilmax-fed cattle

CHICAGO, Ill. (Reuters) — Cattle producers may soon have a hard time getting their hands on a popular feed additive.

Merck & Co.’s decision to suspend sales of Zilmax has caused such a surge in demand for rival Eli Lilly & Co.’s Optaflexx that Lilly is telling some new customers that it cannot immediately supply them, customers told Reuters.

Zilmax became the focus of attention in the livestock industry after Tyson Foods Inc., said Aug. 7 that it would stop buying Zilmax-fed cattle for slaughter in September. Tyson, the biggest U.S. meat processor, said it was concerned about Zilmax potentially causing health problems for some cattle.

Merck announced Aug. 16 it was temporarily suspending sales of the product in the United States and Canada.

Optaflexx, sold by Lilly’s Elanco Animal Health, and Zilmax belong to a family of drugs called beta-agonists, a class of non-hormone growth promoters that have been deemed safe for animals and humans by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both products are fed to cattle before slaughter to increase weight by as much as 30 pounds of lean meat.

Elanco denied that its supply of Optaflexx is short of the industry’s current demand. The company is “managing the supply over the next two weeks as we assess the long-term market demand,” company spokesperson Colleen Parr Dekker said in a statement.

Elanco declined to comment on how much demand for Optaflexx has increased. The company does not publicly break out sales figures for the additive.

Some new Elanco customers said they are being put on a waiting list for Optaflexx due to limited supplies. Other new customers are having their orders only partially filled, said Tom Bejot, a feedlot manager in Ainsworth, Nebraska.

Existing customers said they are being assured that their needs will continue to be filled by Elanco.

“For all their customers who have been using Optaflexx, they’re calling to see how much everybody needs,” said Tom Williams, manager of Chappell Feedlot in Nebraska.

Some cattle feeders who formerly used Zilmax said they are frustrated that they are having trouble immediately ordering an alternative. For many, the drugs have been a way to reduce some of the economic pain caused by high costs for grain fed to cattle.

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