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USDA to Ramp Up Drug Residue Testing for Meat and Poultry

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is beefing up testing for veterinary drug residues in the meat supply – and the new policy will take effect this grilling season.

The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service today will announce a new, more modern testing system that allows the agency to test for dozens of drugs, pesticides, and other potentially harmful compounds simultaneously, instead of only testing for one or a handful of compounds in each meat sample.

The change is a significant update to an often-overlooked part of the food safety system. For the last several years much of the focus has been on microbiological contamination, but much less attention has been paid to drug and chemical contamination in the food supply.

In 2010, the USDA’s Inspector General published a report questioning whether the agency was doing enough to keep harmful drug and chemical residues out of beef products, but the issue has not received much media attention since.

“The new testing methods being announced today will help protect consumers from illegal drug residues in meat products,” said Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Elisabeth Hagen. “By allowing us to test for more chemical compounds from each sample, these changes will enable USDA to identify and evaluate illegal drug residues more effectively and efficiently.”

Using new multi-residue methods, FSIS will be able to test for 55 pesticide chemicals, 9 kinds of antibiotics, various metals, and eventually more than 50 other chemicals (see here for a list).

The testing is done through the National Residue Program (NRP), which collects, analyzes, and then eventually reports the results on the FSIS website. The NRP looks for both legal and illegal compounds, which include a broad range of veterinary drugs, pesticides, hormones, and environmental contaminants that can appear in meat, poultry, and egg products.

The agency said the new testing methods will be more efficient and conserve resources, while also providing better results, for more chemical compounds.

For example, one of the multi-residue methods FSIS will use will allow NRP to screen for several types of legal and illegal drugs — including certain antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and growth promoters. In years past, NRP would have collected 300 samples looking for just one chemical at a time.

The agency is also significantly increasing the number of annual samples it takes per type of animal slaughtered, from 300 to 800 samples.

This would be a drastic increase in testing for many of the drugs currently screened in smaller numbers.

In 2010, FSIS tested a total of 800 samples for beta-agonists, a class of drugs used to promote animal growth, across 5 categories of livestock. The most samples were taken from beef cows (309), mature chickens (319) and sows (300). One sample was taken from market hogs.

The same year, a total of 4,771 samples were tested for antibiotics across 22 slaughter classes. Of these 22 classes, only 3 were tested 300 or more times for antibiotics. These included samples of mature chicken (319), beef cows (309) and sows (300). For the most part, samples from each class fell in the mid 200s, with the exception of ducks, geese, goats, different types of veal and rabbits, all of which were tested less than 100 times.

If FSIS finds an illegal residue level, the agency notifies the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over veterinary drugs. According to the announcement, when illegal levels are found, FDA “may review practices of producers supplying the establishment with livestock or poultry, and FSIS may subject the establishment to increased testing and review.”

Former Under Secretary for Food Safety Dr. Richard Raymond praised the plan.

“Increasing testing without increasing expenses is critical to the FSIS mission in the current economic climate,” said Raymond. “In addition, this new testing development will help FSIS identify the rare producer or processor that intentionally does not follow the rules.”

The agency is taking comments on the changes, which are expected to be published on the Federal Register this week at http://www.regulations.gov. The new testing program is expected to take effect 30 days after the notice is published.

Gretchen Goetz contributed reporting.

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