Beef or Bull? What Zilmax Teaches Us About Industry Science
By Tim Schwab
Over the last few weeks, the largest corporate meatpackers shocked beef markets by announcing they would no longer accept cattle treated with the widely used drug Zilmax. First Tyson, then Cargill jettisoned the growth-promoter, citing animal health concerns, including cattle arriving at slaughterhouses unable to walk. Approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006 but banned in China and the EU based on human health concerns, Zilmax is now being voluntarily pulled from the market by its manufacturer, Merck.
But before suspending sales of Zilmax, Merck vigorously defended the drug, citing favorable research by “University experts.” Merck’s public relations campaign fails to mention that some of these experts are paid consultants, whose research projects are funded and even co-authored by makers of Zilmax.
Last year the Chronicle of Higher Education produced a devastating report about the apparent conflicts of interests among Zilmax’s academic boosters. The highest paid associate professor at West Texas A&M, Ty Lawrence, has acted as a private consultant for a the makers of Zilmax (which Merck acquired in 2009) and received research grant money from them, which resulted in pro-Zilmax research, published in an academic journal with industry ties. He also lends his name to Zilmax public relations materials.
This situation is all too common in academia, where industry funds academics who produce favorable research used to secure regulatory approval and successful product commercialization. Public universities, in the face of eroding research funding from public sources, have turned to industry funding, which is distorting their research mission. Food & Water Watch examined this issue in our report Public Research, Private Gain.
Unfortunately, our food regulators do not acknowledge the inherent conflict of interest in making safety determinations based on industry-funded science. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approves animal drugs based on scientific studies funded or produced by the companies producing these drugs. FDA approved Zilmax based on data including studies by Texas Tech Professor Markus Miller, an animal scientist who has received more than $2 million in research funding from the makers of Zilmax.
Following this regulatory approval, FDA apparently never took a second look at the drug – until Merck voluntarily suspended Zilmax sales two weeks ago. FDA now says it will work with Merck to determine if Zilmax is unsafe.
But wasn’t that FDA’s job in 2006, when it approved Zilmax? As far back as early 2012, FDA acknowledged having received half-dozen reports of cattle dying after eating feed mixed with Zilmax.
There are other indications that FDA’s drug approval process—which approves animal drugs based on research provided by drug sponsors– is broken. In 2011, Pfizer announced that it would stop selling its controversial arsenic-based poultry drug following years of public concern and an independent study that found carcinogenic residue in chickens.
Or consider genetically engineered (GE) salmon, which FDA is in the process of approving under the same animal drug review process as it did Zilmax, relying on science furnished by the company behind the fish, AquaBounty Technologies.
Interestingly, like Zilmax, GE salmon may experience animal health problems. FDA’s advisory panel of independent scientists pointed out weaknesses and bias in AquaBounty’s animal health data and advised FDA on the need for additional studies. While FDA did acknowledge uncertainties surrounding the health of GE salmon, the agency said it would address this issue through “post-market surveillance.”
Well, we saw how well that wait-and-see approach worked for Zilmax. During the eight years it was on the market, it was fed to millions of cattle while FDA buried its head in the sand. Do we really want to put Merck, Pfizer and AquaBounty in charge of determining whether their products are safe for animals – and safe for consumers to eat?