Food

American Meat Is Even Grosser Than You Thought

In the focus on E. coli and salmonella, meat contaminated by heavy metals, veterinary drugs and pesticides has been slipping through the bureaucratic cracks.

In 2008, Mexican authorities rejected a shipment of U.S. beef because the meat exceeded Mexico's regulatory tolerance for copper. The rejected meat was returned to the United States, where it was sold and consumed, because the U.S. has no regulatory threshold for copper in meat.

Incidents like this are why the food safety arm of USDA, known as the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), is under USDA scrutiny. While the public has gotten used to microbes like E. coli and salmonella threatening the nation's meat supply, and while food safety agencies make food-borne illness a high-profile priority, contamination of meat by heavy metals, veterinary drugs and pesticides has been slipping through the bureaucratic cracks.

Microbial contaminants can be killed by cooking, but chemical residues aren't destroyed by heat. In fact, some of these residues break down into more dangerous substances when heated, according to the FSIS National Residue Program for Cattle, a recent report by the USDA's Office of the Inspector General.

The report is full of bad news about the ineffectual attempts that are being made to keep chemical residues out of the food supply, but optimists might point to the report's tone as a sliver of good news. The report is sharply critical of the efforts to keep our meat free of chemical residues, and shows determination to shore up this gaping hole in food safety.

"... The national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues," the report says, noting that thresholds for many dangerous substances, like copper and dioxin, have yet to be established. "We also found that FSIS does not recall meat adulterated with harmful residues, even when it is aware that the meat has failed its laboratory tests."

The routes by which veterinary drugs make it into human food trace a disturbing portrait of how large dairy farms operate. Sick dairy cows are given medications to help them recover, but if it appears an animal will die, it's often sold to a slaughterhouse as quickly as possible, in time to kill it before it dies. That way, "[the dairy farmer] can recoup some of his investment in the animal," according to the report.

In such cases, medications may be consumed along with the meat. Such drugs include Ivermectin (which can act as a neurotoxin in humans), Flunixin (which can damage kidneys), and penicillin (which can cause life-threatening allergic reactions in some people).

The meat from sick dairy cattle is low-grade, and is usually turned into burger and sold to the sorts of buyers who stretch their dollars furthest, like fast food chains and school lunch programs. But veterinary drugs are also finding their way into an upper echelon of meat: veal.

The milk produced by medicated dairy cows is barred from sale to human consumers -- a sensible rule, given the dangers suggested above. Unfortunately, no law prevents this "waste milk" from being fed to veal calves, the meat of which sometimes tests positive for these drugs. As with sick dairy cow meat that tests positive for antibiotics, no measures are taken to recall such veal or penalize the slaughterhouses that produce it. One slaughterhouse, according to the report, amassed 211 violations in 2008 and was still considered by FSIS as a place where contamination "is not reasonably likely to occur."

Such failings can be traced to a 1984 memorandum of understanding between FDA, FSIS and EPA. These three agencies agreed to appoint senior executives to oversee a group called the Surveillance Advisory Team (SAT). The SAT was supposed to manage interagency collaboration aimed at preventing the entry of chemical residues into the food supply. But according to the recent report, "...high-level officials from the agencies involved do not attend [the annual SAT] meetings, and there is no mechanism for elevating issues, making recommendations, and ensuring that appropriate actions are taken to solve identified problems. Without such a mechanism, many problems requiring interagency coordination have not been dealt with despite the agencies' awareness of the problems."

In addition to veterinary drugs and heavy metals, agricultural pesticides also find their way into the meat supply, often through contaminated food and water. While the SAT agencies jointly determine which pesticides should be tested for, it's the FSIS that actually conducts the tests. In recent years the FSIS has tested for only one of the 23 pesticide classes it is charged with testing for: chlorinated hydrocarbons/chlorinated organophosphates. FSIS blames its limited budget and a lack of guidance as to minimum levels the agency is supposed to enforce. The Office of the Inspector General report dismisses the excuses and calls the oversight unacceptable, saying "the SAT needs to seek executive-level involvement from all three agencies to resolve differences, and, if necessary, to determine the best method for obtaining the needed testing resources to ensure that the highest priority substances are tested."

Several other chinks in the food supply's armor are noted as well, including faulty testing methodologies, bureaucratic smothering of innovative testing techniques, and failure of FSIS to share testing results. After raking the muck, the report makes recommendations on how the interagency collaborations behind the SAT could be improved. The report also mentions that the FSIS has agreed to many of its recommendations, such as increasing testing at plants that slaughter veal calves and dairy cows--where 90 percent of the residue violations have been detected.

While the Office of the Inspector General appears to be making a sincere effort to improve the framework that's supposed to protect our food, it could also be argued that these efforts amount to enabling an industry that remains rotten at its core. Rushing sick cattle to slaughter before they die, or feeding tainted "waste milk" to veal calves, are practices that would be better eliminated than improved, but in fairness that isn't within the mandate of the OIG to decide. So while improvements appear to be in the works for the production practices behind mystery meat and mystery milk, the system shows little sign of becoming inherently less disgusting. As long as customers keep demanding cheap meat, cheap meat will probably continue to be produced.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.