The U.S. and some allied nations have won a key battle in Rome over the international acceptance of a key growth-promoting drug in livestock, but the European Union, China and others managed to barely block a full victory.

The U.S., Philippines, Ghana, Dominican Republic and other nations won an initial vote to upgrade the status of the beta agonist zilpaterol hydrochloride during a summit at the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Codex Alimentarius last week.

It was a win in the battle that’s been going on for more than a decade at the United Nations institute, moving the acceptance of maximum residue levels — or MRLs — for the feed additive to “step five” of the lengthy eight-step process, but the U.S. wanted more, according to government officials who didn't want their names used.

The 87 members who voted yes were more than enough to push the drug into the step five category of interim adoption.

“Given that there is ongoing international trade with several Codex members having already established their national MRLs for zilpaterol, there is the need to harmonize these standards at the Codex level to ensure availability of an international reference for regulation at the national level,” Ghana said in its official comments filed with Codex.

But the proponents of zilpaterol hydrochloride — known by Merck’s commercial name of Zilmax — decided at the summit to try for complete victory. The proponents took the initiative to call for an ad hoc vote on whether or not another vote could be held to push for final adoption — the final step eight.

U.S. officials said they were bolstered by strong support in Rome as well as studies by the Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives, showing that meat produced from animals given zilpaterol hydrochloride is safe for human consumption.

To win that subsequent vote, proponents would have needed two-thirds of the member countries present in the voting room to vote in favor — a total of 87 — and they already got that on the first vote.

“So why not just move to the end now?” one official said

It was close, but proponents only got 84 votes in favor.

The European Union, whose one vote actually counted as 27 votes because its member countries delegated their authority, rallied support for its opposition from China, Russia, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and other nations, and that proved enough as countries like the UK, South Korea and Qatar sat on the sidelines with abstentions.

Still, the U.S. and Merck said the summit was overall a win.

A USDA spokesperson, in a statement to Agri-Pulse, said “after a decade of hard work, the Codex Alimentarius Commission made notable progress towards establishing maximum residue limits … for the veterinary drug zilpaterol hydrochloride, with a majority of members strongly affirming the preeminent role of science in setting international standards for food safety and recognizing the overwhelming body of scientific evidence supporting the safety of zilpaterol to consumers. The United States welcomes the interim adoption of MRLs for zilpaterol and commends the Commission and its members for coming together to advance this work.”

A Merck spokesperson similarly said the company considers the result of the Codex summit an important success.

The company said in a statement it “welcomes progress made at the 45th Codex Alimentarius Commission to advance the Zilpaterol Hydrochloride … MRL to the next step in the Codex process. However, there is still work to be done.”

But there is also still a lot of opposition to the growth promotant.

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Thailand said it simply could not vote to approve MRLs for the feed additive because its national laws prohibit its use, while other opponents in Europe and elsewhere had a variety of different objections.

The European Consumer Organization (BEUC), a Belgium-based umbrella group, did much of the speaking for the EU delegation last week in Rome, and its arguments frustrated U.S. officials. Hormone, steroid and antibiotic residues in meat were dangerous, the BEUC said, so beta agonist residues must also be.

The group also went on to say that European consumers say they simply don’t like the idea of growth promotants. Beyond that, the BEUC claimed without going into detail that the drug is bad for animal health and welfare.

Two U.S. officials said those arguments, regardless of any merits, miss the point. The job of Codex is to assure food safety and that should have been the focus last week in Rome.

“Zilpaterol Hydrochloride has decades of research and development and rigorous testing. It has been proven to be safe when used according to the product label and in conjunction with sound animal husbandry practices,” Merck said in the statement to Agri-Pulse. “It is a feed supplement that helps the beef animal’s natural metabolism to more efficiently produce meat and helps advance food supply.”

Nevertheless, it doesn’t help Merck’s message that the company suspended sales of Zilmax in the U.S. and Canada years ago and Cargill at the time said it stopped buying “Zilmax-fed cattle in North America, pending research being conducted by Merck.”

A Cargill official said Tuesday the company’s position has not changed and a Merck spokesperson did not respond to questions about the issue.

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