USDA, Nebraska U. researchers find no danger in Merck's Zilmax

Horrifying reports of hoofless and immobile cattle gave Merck ($MRK) a scare last year, prompting the drugmaker to voluntarily pull its feed additive, Zilmax, from shelves following the allegations from food producers. But now a study carried out by researchers with the University of Nebraska, Lincoln and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service found Zilmax had no negative effects on cattle health.

Twenty heifers were studied over 26 days and scientists concluded that Zilmax was effective in beefing the heifers' muscle mass without having a harmful effect on their health. Heifers treated with the product had some minor variations from the control group, such as decreased production of cortisol. But the chief scientist of the study, Ty Schmidt, said that in "Zilmax supplemented heifers, these differences are minor and show no indication that supplementation of Zilmax is detrimental to the health or well-being cattle." His research also involved Jeff Carroll and Nicole Sanchez of the USDA Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. 

Whether the study can save the drug is yet to be seen; during its lapse from the market, Zilmax competitors have been gaining momentum. Food producers have been looking to Elanco's Optaflexx to beef up their cattle--and while sales figures haven't been disclosed by its parent Eli Lily ($LLY), a spokeswoman told The Wall Street Journal earlier this month that buyers continue to see "strong interest" in the product.

And adding insult to injury for Zilmax, animal health industry leader Zoetis ($ZTS) is planning to get its growth-promoting drug for cattle on the market by the end of the year. The company got an approval of its ractopamine drug Actogain from the FDA last year. 

Zilmax is also facing trouble on the global market. While beef-hungry South Korea is easing restrictions on importing meat fed with the additive, it has delayed those plans--and mega-consumers China, Russia and the EU already ban it.

Zilmax was approved by the FDA in 2006 and has since been fed to about 25 million American cattle. The product brought in $159 million in U.S. sales. The company intends to test Zilmax in about 250,000 cattle in a randomized, controlled study. But sources say beef producers like Cargill and JBS SA have pushed back against the move. While Merck planned to have the feed additive on the market by this summer, the study has been delayed.

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