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The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning letter this week to a Petaluma beef producer, saying the amount of penicillin in a slaughtered cow’s liver was well beyond government-set limits.
The agency warned a dairy farming operation that the level of penicillin found in one cow’s liver is ten times the acceptable limit, and urged the operator to take steps to fix the problem.
The letter is one more action the FDA has taken in line with its campaign, announced in June, to cut down on excessive use of antibiotics in animals that people tend to eat – cows, pigs and chickens.
The FDA made the move to limit overdrugging of animals, a practice often meant to make them gain weight faster. Such use, though, can encourage the proliferation of drug-resistant bacteria that makes human diseases much harder to treat.
The Vancouver Sun reported on the problem, talking to a doctor who described the consequences of excessive antibiotic use in animals:
A food chain contaminated by drug-resistant bacteria bodes ill for both public health and the cost of health care, and as drug resistance in microbes increases, the number of effective antibiotics in the doctors' arsenal has dropped.
"As doctors we are seeing that people have infections that were easily treated years ago, when all the basic antibiotics took care of most of the infections that people had," said Vancouver physician Dr. Bill Mackie, chairman of the environmental health committee of the B.C. Medical Association. "Of late there has been increasing [drug] resistance; when you put someone on an antibiotic that you expect to do its job, it doesn't work."
When a course of antibiotic treatment fails, people stay sick longer and doctors must resort to more exotic and often more expensive drugs, Mackie said.
The FDA response to the problem has been to issue “voluntary guidelines” that it hopes food producers will follow.
But when it comes to other substances that shouldn’t be in our hamburgers, it turns out the government and public is often in the dark.
A March audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that the agency examining beef samples for toxins has no minimum accepted [PDF] for toxins such as copper, arsenic and many pesticides. That means authorities have no basis to cry foul when they become aware of beef that's tainted with an unregulated substance.
In one instance, according to the audit [PDF], authorities in Mexico turned back a shipment of U.S. beef because the copper limits were too high.
Here’s another example from the audit:
Unlike other countries, FDA has not set a tolerance for arsenic. In 2008, a producer self-reported that arsenic had been mistakenly ingested by his cattle, and voluntarily withheld contaminated animals from the food supply after they were slaughtered and tested positive for arsenic poisoning. If the producer had not acted voluntarily, FSIS would not have had a basis to stop distribution of this meat once it was in commerce.
USA Today covered the audit when it was issued and quoted one food safety advocate who found the result troubling:
"It's unacceptable. These are substances that can have a real impact on public health," says Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a public interest group. "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."
Some contamination is inadvertent, such as pesticide residues in cows that drink water fouled by crop runoff. Other contaminants, such as antibiotics, often are linked to the use of those chemicals in farming. For example, the audit says, veal calves often have higher levels of antibiotic residue because ranchers feed them milk from cows treated with the drugs. Overuse of the antibiotics help create antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases.
The auditors recommended that the USDA examine additional substances for the agency to test for, a task the agency said it would complete in one year.
In the meantime, the agency has begun publicly posting lists [PDF] of beef producers whose cows are tested and determined to have unacceptable levels of monitored substances – mostly antibiotics.