Cameras rolled one day last fall as Ty E. Lawrence led journalists into a room-sized meat locker on the campus of West Texas A&M University, where bloody sides of beef, still covered with a slick layer of ivory-colored fat, hung from steel hooks. Dressed in a white lab coat, a hard hat on his head, Lawrence pointed to the carcass of a Holstein that had been fed a new drug called Zilmax. He noted its larger size compared with the nearby body of a steer never given the drug.
"This is thicker, and it's plumper," said Lawrence, an associate professor of animal science, pointing at the beast's rib-eye. "This animal right here," he said, waving his hand at the pharmaceutically enhanced meat, "doesn't look like a Holstein anymore."
Convincing ranchers that Zilmax will transform their cattle into bovine Schwarzeneggers has been part of Lawrence's work ever since the drug was introduced by Intervet, a subsidiary of Merck, the global pharmaceutical company. The tour he led of the carcasses in his lab was just one of many events where he has helped Intervet sell Zilmax. He's given speeches to ranchers and written an article for a beef-industry magazine to promote the drug. He's repeatedly let Intervet include his comments in news releases, including one in which he said the drug could "revolutionize the beef production system."
Lawrence is hardly alone. Scores of animal scientists employed by public universities have helped pharmaceutical companies persuade farmers and ranchers to use antibiotics, hormones, and drugs like Zilmax to make their cattle grow bigger ever faster. With the use of these products, the average weight of a fattened steer sold to a packing plant is now roughly 1,300 pounds—up from 1,000 pounds in 1975.
It's been a profitable venture for the drug companies, as well as for the professors and their universities. Agriculture schools increasingly depend on the industry for research grants, a sizable portion of which cover overhead and administrative costs. And many professors now add to their personal bank accounts by working for the companies as consultants and speakers. More than two-thirds of animal scientists reported in a 2005 survey that they had received money from industry in the previous five years.
Yet unlike a growing number of medical schools around the country, where administrators have recently tightened rules to better police their faculty's ties to pharmaceutical companies, the schools of agriculture have largely rejected critics' concerns about industry cash. Administrators have set few limits on how much corporate money agricultural professors can accept. Faculty work with industry is governed by confidentiality rules that veil it from public view.
In certain ways, the close relationship between animal scientists and pharmaceutical companies has never served the public well. Few animal scientists have been interested in looking at what harm the livestock drugs may be causing to the cattle, the environment, or the people eating the meat. They've left most of that work to scientists outside of agriculture, consumer groups, and others who take interest.
But with the introduction of Zilmax, the situation may have reached a tipping point. Critics say some academic animal scientists have become so closely tied to the drug companies that they may be working more in the companies' interests than in those of farmers and ranchers—the very groups that land-grant universities were created to serve...
Read the rest of this story at The Chronicle of Higher Education.