Livestock producers are scrambling in the face of a global shortage of vitamins A and E during the first half of 2018. Recent weeks have seen extreme price volatility in markets for this pair of vitamin feed components that are so vital to animal health and performance.
Vitamin E spot prices more than tripled soon after Oct. 31, 2017, when fire broke out at the BASF citral plant situated along the Rhine River in Ludwigshafen, Germany. BASF is by far the world’s largest producer of citral, a key intermediate in the synthesis of vitamins A and E.
Compounding matters, the BASF fire was preceded in the summer months by a downturn in production of these vitamins in China. New Chinese government-enforced environmental protection measures are forcing all Chinese vitamin manufacturers to limit production output.
“The vitamin industry is considered one of the heavily polluting industries, secondary to chemicals, cement and the pharmaceutical industry,” notes Alexander Buchan, Alltech inventory manager for the Asia-Pacific region. “As a result, the environmental protection tax law will without any doubt have a drastic effect on the manufacturers in China and their efforts for cleaner production.”
BASF declared force majeure, which suspends a company’s contractual obligations in the wake of disasters that lie beyond its control, for its citral and isoprenol-based aroma ingredients. The company later extended force majeure to vitamins A and E, shutting down production of both. Those operations cannot be restarted until the supply of citral is re-established and the corresponding intermediates for vitamin A and E again become available.
Immediately following the BASF force majeure declaration, all Chinese manufacturers stopped offering quotations in order to increase market prices. Only wholesale commodity agents had adequate stocks, offered at inflated prices higher than the manufacturer price. Once the agents’ stocks were depleted, the Chinese manufacturers began producing again at a higher price, often two to three times that of the agents’ previous offerings to the market.
An estimated 40-45% of the global vitamin A 1000 feed-grade market is currently supplied by precursors that were being manufactured at the BASF citral facility, according to an estimate by Feedinfo News Service.
Although the benefits vary from species to species, vitamin A is generally important for immunity and reproduction and helps the heart, lungs, kidneys and other organs function properly.
High concentrations of vitamin E are present in fresh green forage such as hay and silage. But levels decrease as plants mature and are stored. The most important functions of vitamin E are as an antioxidant and in boosting the immune system.
Vitamin E has also been shown to be essential for the integrity and optimal function of the reproductive system as well as the muscular, circulatory and nervous systems in animals and humans.
Vitamin E deficiency causes disorders of the cellular membrane due to the oxidative degradation of polyunsaturated fatty acids, resulting in protein oxidation and ultimately leading to nucleic acid damage. The symptoms are specific to each animal species.
Due to the oxidative degradation of polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamin E deficiency generally causes liver necrosis. A lack of vitamin E in the diet can cause species-specific disorders such as encephalomalacia (“crazy chick syndrome”) in poultry and exudative diathesis (abnormal permeability of the capillary walls). The deficiency is also linked to mulberry heart disease, which results in the sudden heart failure of pigs, and “white muscle disease” (muscular dystrophy) in livestock and poultry.
Barely detectable subclinical vitamin E deficiency can result in impaired feed conversion and retarded growth. It has also been shown to lead to reduced stress resistance, higher susceptibility to infectious diseases and lower fertility.
What should livestock producers do in the vitamin A and E crisis?
So, among producers struggling to maintain healthy herds, the burning question is, “What now?”
Crises have a way of sparking innovation. “I think we need to rethink vitamin E formulation strategies and, in particular, the tendency to increase supplementation rates that has been seen over the last few years,” says Richard Murphy, research director at the Alltech European Bioscience Centre in Dunboyne, Ireland. “If we look, for instance, at reformulating vitamin levels based on the synergy and antioxidant contribution that other nutrients like selenium offer, then we can look at reducing the effective inclusion levels of vitamin E.”
Lowering vitamin E inclusions, however, is not as simple as finding a replacement.
“The reality of antioxidants is that they do not act alone, but instead constantly interact with one another, forming an intricate antioxidant network,” says Kate Jacques, Alltech director of nutrition. “No two antioxidants interact within this web with the same specificity, so while antioxidants work in concert, one cannot replace the other.”
In the case of the vitamin E shortage, the question is not how do we replace vitamin E, but rather, how do we maximize the efficiency of the antioxidant network with less vitamin E?
That is exactly the premise of the Alltech product EconomasE, a proprietary antioxidant blend that has been found to support the antioxidant network and improve the efficiency of antioxidant systems that depend on vitamin E. Developed using gene expression measures, research scientists found that this particular blend of nutrients could give a similar gene expression profile to that activated by supplemental vitamin E.
Rather than replacing vitamin E, EconomasE supports the rest of the antioxidant system and makes the most of the existing vitamin E. By ensuring the optimal activities of the existing antioxidant system in the cell and assuring a supply of essential trace minerals that are necessary for antioxidant enzymes, EconomasE reduces the amount of vitamin E necessary to keep oxidation at bay.
“Further genomic studies have found that EconomasE increased the activity of genes that normally respond to vitamin E,” Murphy says. “In fact, when EconomasE is included in the diet, it is possible to reduce vitamin E supplementation without compromising animal welfare and performance.”
In livestock performance trials, EconomaseE has also shown promise as an alternative antioxidant system by supporting antioxidant capacity and decreasing the cost of feed. In broilers, birds supplemented with EconomasE exhibited equal or better performance and antioxidant activity compared to birds supplemented with vitamin E (the optimal inclusion rate was found to be 200 grams per ton). In both dairy and beef, EconomasE at 2 grams per animal per day showed benefits to reproduction.
When will BASF resume production?
BASF does not anticipate restarting the Ludwigshafen citral plant before late March 2018. Once production at the citral plant is re-established, vitamins A and E are expected to be available for transport six to 12 weeks thereafter and will then be subject to country-specific shipping lead times. BASF has established a website to provide updates.