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The Big Get Bigger: Elanco's Planned Acquisition of Bayer Animal Health Will Create Another Industry Giant

Any mention of factory farm corporations usually conjures up names like Tyson, Cargill, Koch Foods, JBS, Perdue and, more recently, retailer-turned-factory-farm, Costco.

Some consumers will also think names like Monsanto (now owned by Bayer), Syngenta (now owned by ChemChina) and DowDupont—the companies behind the massive amounts of GMO grains grown to feed imprisoned animals.

Even fewer consumers, however, will think “Big Pharma” when they hear the words “factory farm.” 

Yet, the pharmaceutical industry plays an integral role in industrial factory farming. 

Giants like Bayer and Elanco want us to think they’re in the business of “animal health.” But what they’re really doing, is pushing drugs—on farm animals. And as the recent news of Elanco Animal Health’s proposed $7.6-billion acquisition of Bayer Animal Health reveals, a dizzying number of relatively recent spin-offs is leading to monopolization in the world of “Big Farma.”

Enough spin-offs to make your head spin

By now, most people know about Bayer’s past role in Nazi concentration camps and its track record with respect to lethal drugs, such as Baycol, pulled off the market after it was linked to 32 deaths. They also know about Bayer CropScience's pesticides, including bee-killing neonicotinoids, and the company’s $66-billion acquisition in 2016 of Monsanto, which included Monsanto’s flagship herbicide, glyphosate.

But fewer people know that Bayer is also in the animal drug business—a business it plans to shed, assuming the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division approves Bayer’s plan to sell Bayer Animal Health to Elanco Animal Health. The plan, which would make Elanco the no. 2 veterinary drug peddler, second only to Zoetis.

The veterinary drug industry, whose largest customers are corporate factory farms, has seen plenty of consolidation in recent years.

In 2013, Pfizer spun off its “animal health” division in a $2.2-billion initial public offering (IPO) which, according to some market watchers, was designed to make up for the losses Pfizer incurred when the drug-maker’s aggressively marketed antidepressant Cymbalta, and estrogen agonist/antagonist Evista, both went off patent. 

The Zoetis IPO was at the time the largest IPO since Facebook's $104-billion IPO in 2012.

Pfizer's successful gambit is said to have inspired Eli Lilly’s spin-off of Elanco, its animal health business earlier this year.

Elanco: built one acquisition at a time

With 5,800 employees in 90 countries Elanco owes it growth to the serial acquisitions, first by its former parent company, Eli Lilly and subsequently on its own, of veterinary drug businesses. For example, in 2014, Eli Lilly acquired the drug giant Novartis AG's animal health business which greatly strengthened Elanco's resources and product lines.

The Novartis Animal Health acquisition added 3,000 employees, 600 products and nine manufacturing sites to Elanco. It also expanded Elanco’s equine and vaccines sales and created an entry into the aquaculture market.

The same year, Lilly acquired Lohmann Animal Health, a global poultry vaccine and feed additive leader.

In 2011, Lilly acquired Janssen Pharmaceutica, a Johnson & Johnson company, adding Flubenol (flubendazole) to treat roundworms in swine and poultry (wear gloves and a dust mask for handling, warns the product sheet) and Vecoxan (diclazuril) for coccidial infections (parasites) in calves and lambs to its product list.

According to the Vecoxan product fact sheet, farmers can avoid using the drug by "providing dry, clean bedding, avoiding overstocking and stress" and "Keeping feed and water troughs clean and clear of faecal contamination.” For housed animals, “thorough cleaning of premises between batches" and "turning young animals out onto fresh pasture" will help prevent coccidial infections.

But none of those conditions describe today’s “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” (CAFOs), or as they’re more commonly called, factory farms—so Vecoxan to the rescue!

Vaccines: the next Big Pharma cash cow

Before Lilly spun off Elanco earlier this year, and before Elanco's recent offer to buy Bayer Animal Health, Elanco already planned to debut new vaccines to surpass the industry's annual vaccine sales growth rate of 4 percent to 5 percent, according to market reports.

Why the interest in vaccines? As global antibiotic-resistance public health crisis worsens, factory farms will eventually have to end the routine use of preventive antibiotics. That will cut into Big Pharma’s animal drug sales—so the drug pushers are looking at vaccine sales to pick up the slack.

Here’s how Bloomberg describes (according to AgriMarketing) the lucrative livestock vaccine market as it appeared in 2016.

A 2015 study estimated the global animal-vaccine market will be worth $7.2 billion by 2020, up from $5.5 billion in 2010. Already, about one-third of the industry's revenue is from vaccines, according to company and industry officials . . . The company [Elanco] expects European approval to market Clynav, a DNA vaccine for north Atlantic salmon to fight pancreas diseases. The company is also working on a new vaccine for bovine respiratory disease . . .

Elanco has plenty of company. At New Jersey-based Zoetis Inc., vaccines accounted for almost half the company's product approvals last year. It received a license in 2013 for Fostera PCV MH, which helps control porcine circovirus and enzootic pneumonia. This year, regulators granted the company a conditional license for its vaccine to help prevent disease caused by avian influenza H5N1 in chickens.

Animal Pharma doesn’t hide the fact that it seeks to replace its routine antibiotic use in healthy animals with vaccines. The overriding goal of Elanco's 48,000-square-foot research facility near Indianapolis is "to develop vaccines that food producers can use in place of the antibiotics that they’re under increasing pressure to eliminate," reports FiercePharma.

Do we really want these vaccines in our food supply?

While the animal drug pushers ramp up vaccine sales to make up for potentially slower sales of other animal drugs, consumers are still left with this: If you buy meat from animals raised on factory farms, it’s likely to be contaminated with something—either vaccine drugs, antibiotics or any number of drug residues, some of them even banned in meat production.

Let’s look at a few of the vaccines Elanco is pushing, starting with Imvixa, a delousing product for use in farmed Atlantic salmon operations. Consider this warning:

Meanwhile, with respect to the risk that the use of this product may pose to other animals (eg molting stage in crustaceans), the executive said that Imvixa should only be used in land-based freshwater sites with a treatment system for effluent and treatment of solids. Therefore, it should not be released to the environment. That's part of its condition of use. Thus, there is a guarantee that the product will not have contact with the environment or with species that are in the environment.

Why is that statement alarming? Because farmed Atlantic salmon have been known to escape from both net pen and land-based salmon farms.

Then there’s Victrio, the "DNA immunostimulant" that will become Elanco's if its purchase of Bayer Animal Health is approved. Victrio is injected into 18-day-old embryonated eggs. The drug is a bacterial-produced plasmid DNA with a liposome carrier to stimulate the innate immune system in poultry. The stimulation of the innate immune system has been shown to provide a potent, rapid, nonspecific, protective response to infectious agents."

Thanks to the biotech industry, injecting embryonated eggs with immunizations is the rule not the exception, says Science Direct:

Currently, most of the major hatcheries in the USA and a number of other countries immunize broilers against MD by in ovo vaccination. In addition to the MDV vaccine, some flocks also receive in ovo vaccines against IBD and poxvirus. The in ovo vaccines are injected in eggs at about EID 18, when the eggs are routinely transferred from the incubators to the hatchers.

Elanco also floats this warning about the chicken viruses in its medications:

One would not expect the inactivated viruses or bacteria involved to be a problem by themselves as they do not cause disease in humans, and further there are no living organisms present" but if human injections of the vaccines occur, "it is recommended that the victim seek immediate medical attention. Do not delay treatment."

But hey, it’s worth the risk, right? So people can eat more and more factory farm chicken? According to William Weldon, vice-president of Elanco R&D:

"As the middle class grows in size and affluence throughout the world, the demand for eggs and poultry is growing rapidly. However, egg layer productivity is now shrinking after decades of increases," said William Weldon, vice president of Elanco R&D. Delivering innovation to this industry is critical. Without it, we're on pace to double the number of hens needed, plus the massive resources to support them, in order to meet demand in 2050.”

Spoken like a true promoter of the biotech industry’s obsession with getting more profit out of each animal "unit" with vaccines, feed additives and GMOs.

There’s another reason Elanco is eager to acquire Bayer Animal Health. African swine flu has led to the slaughter of millions of animals in China, a scourge as underreported as the U.S. porcine epidemic diarrhea virus which killed one-tenth of all U.S. pigs between May 2013 and September 2014 but was largely––and conveniently––ignored by the mainstream press.

Similarly the African swine flu scourge currently causing the slaughter of millions of pigs in China has barely made the news except for this short Bloomberg observation in August.

For companies like Elanco, the culling of livestock has led to lower demand for medicines and other products. “I haven’t seen something like this in my 30 years working in animal health,” said Elanco Chief Executive Officer Jeff Simmons in a telephone interview. He said that swine fever is the most significant headwind the company faces. The disease is expected to cut into Elanco’s sales by $40 million to $50 million this year, the company said.

No wonder Bayer and Elanco want to emphasize their pet business when they talk about "animal health" with heart-warming photos of cuddly cats and dogs, instead of showing sick food animals in cramped conditions that are headed to the dinner table.

No friend of animals—or consumers

Elanco's anti-consumer, anti-environment, anti-animal positions are nothing new. The company bought its recombinant bovine growth hormone, Posilac, one of the U.S.'s first genetically engineered foods, from Monsanto and continued to market it despite public outrage.

Over 10 years ago when it looked like Congress might regulate antibiotics used on the farm, Elanco wrote in a brochure:

"Monitoring antibiotic resistance in raw meat products is not an appropriate measure to represent the bacteria that reach the consumer because cooking destroys these bacteria, and dead bacteria cannot transmit antibiotic resistance."

Not true, of course. Daily dosing of antibiotics, at the same time it lowers feed needs, lowers drug effectiveness and produces antibiotic-resistant bacteria or super bugs that can be deadly to people.

Then there’s Elanco’s notorious food additive ractopamine––still in use––which has been repeatedly found to mimic stress hormones and lead to health problems in pigs.

"Fed to an estimated 60 to 80 percent of pigs in the U.S. meat industry, ractopamine use has resulted in more reports of sickened or dead pigs than any other livestock drug on the market," says the Center for Food Safety. "According to FDA's own calculations, more pigs have been adversely affected by ractopamine than by any other animal drug—more than 160,000."

How does Elanco justify its participation in the biotech/GMO/factory farm world?

By shamelessly perpetuating the myth that factory farms “feed the world.” Shamelessly, Elanco presented its biotech/GMO approach to find new world markets as "feeding the world's hungry" in a slick, misleading campaign a few years ago that redefined unadulterated, normal food as a luxury and redefined GMOs, antibiotics, hormones, chemicals and production methods like battery egg cages as "innovation."

"Organics and 'luxury food' produced without innovation have almost become a status symbol for those who can afford it," says Elanco. "Is it fair—or justifiable—for shoppers living in comfort to disregard innovations that can help feed others?"

What a load of drug-contaminated cow, pig and chicken manure.

Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and frequent contributor to Organic Consumers Assocation (OCA). Katherine Paul, OCA associate director, contributed to this article. To keep up with OCA news and alerts, sign up for our newsletter.