Veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals are making it onto our plates via meat, according to a federal audit released this week.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report concludes that the agencies responsible for monitoring harmful residues are “not accomplishing” their mission.
“Together, [USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service], FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce,” says the audit, which identifies lack of agency commitment and poor interagency coordination as key issues.
The OIG also found that FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the “excessive presence of veterinary drugs.”
“Not only does overuse of antibiotics help create antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases, but the residues of certain drugs and heavy metals can have potentially adverse health consequences if they are consumed in meat,” OIG reported. The audit offers the following table, which lists five drugs and substances found in meat and their potential health effects (click to enlarge):
Harmful residues can find their way into meat in a variety of ways. If drugs are used on a sick animal and adequate time does not elapse between when the drugs are withdrawn and the time of slaughter, the drugs may be found in the animal’s meat. If there are pesticides in the feed, pesticide residues can likewise continue on through the food chain.
The report explains the findings are particularly troubling because dangerous residues cannot be cooked out. “While cooking meat properly can destroy [pathogens] before they are consumed, no amount of cooking will destroy residues. In some cases, heat may actually break residues down into components that are more harmful to consumers. Since consumers have no easy way of protecting themselves against the residues of harmful substances in their food, it is important that the national residue program’s controls be as robust as possible to prevent meat contaminated with harmful substances from reaching the kitchen table.”
“The implications of this audit are huge,” said Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY), the only microbiologist serving in Congress, who has become a
champion for curbing the routine, or subtherapeutic, use of antibiotics
“Americans expect our government to protect the public health,” she said. “Overuse of antibiotics on farms leads directly to antibiotic-resistant pathogens. In addition, antibiotic and other residues in meat can cause potentially severe health consequences. I am pleased to see that the OIG is taking this issue seriously, and I expect that the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency will take swift and aggressive action to improve oversight of meat safety.”
“It’s unacceptable. These are substances that can have a real impact on public health,” Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, told USA TODAY Tuesday. “This administration is making a big deal about promoting exports, and you have Mexico rejecting our beef because of excessive residue levels. It’s pretty embarrassing.”
The OIG report says FSIS, EPA, and FDA need to expand the number of substances tested for, improve the methodology for sampling hazardous residues, determine more efficient ways of approving newer methods of testing for drug residues, and collaborate to set tolerances for additional residues.
FSIS did not dispute any of the OIG’s findings or recommendations.
The entire report is available here.
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