As Beef Cattle Become Behemoths, Who Are Animal Scientists Serving?

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Excerpted from a post that originally appeared in
The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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.

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