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Drug Residues in Meat

The U.S. Inspector General cites the USDA for failing to safeguard the meat supply from drug residues.

October 18, 2010 |
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One of the reasons we are increasingly plagued with new superbugs is the mass feeding of antibiotics to farm animals. As Britain’s chief medical officer put it in his 2009 annual report: "every inappropriate…use [of antibiotics in] agriculture is potentially signing a death warrant for a future patient."
Earlier this year I had the opportunity to debate some of the kinda captains of industry like the National Pork Producers Council on this dangerous practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock…
I’ve always insisted that the reason it’s dangerous to feed millions of pounds of antibiotics to cows, pigs, and chickens every year—in part just to fatten them faster for slaughter—is because this fosters antibiotic resistance in bacteria that can then infect human beings, not because there’s a problem with antibiotic drug residues getting in the meat itself. How wrong I was.
In a damning report released earlier this year, the U.S. Inspector General slammed the USDA for not protecting the American public. As you can see in the Executive Summary of the report, one of the public safety issues facing the United States is the contamination of meat with residual drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals. These drug and chemical residues then find their way to our dinner plates, but in order to safeguard the nation’s food supply from harmful residue, the USDA, FDA, and EPA are supposed to test for these contaminants and prevent adulterated meat from entering the food supply.
But based on their review, the Inspector General found that the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues. They haven’t even established threshold levels for many dangerous substances, which has resulted in contaminated meat being distributed to consumers. And then the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service doesn’t even attempt to recall meat confirmed to have excessive drug residues.
What’s the problem with not having safety thresholds? Well, for example, in 2008 Mexican authorities rejected a shipment of U.S. beef because it contained excessive levels of copper. But since we haven’t set any safety level for copper, it was fine by U.S. standards. So too dangerous to be sold in Mexico, but good enough for U.S. consumers.
There are more than a thousand pesticides approved for use in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency routinely asks the USDA to test for pesticides that everyone agrees has high health risks. But, for many years now, they continue to test for only one type of pesticide, out of more than a thousand.
What’s the big deal, though? What potential affects could the drugs and toxic metals in meat have on people? Bleeding, ulcers, allergic reactions, serious nerve damage, severe inflammation, skin cancers, internal cancers, jaundice, kidney failure, neurotoxicity—kills brain cells, and even death.
Doesn’t cooking destroy the drugs, though? … No amount of cooking, will destroy residues. In fact, in some cases, heat may actually break residues down into components that are more harmful to consumers.
And then even when our government find these drugs in the meat, they don’t stop it contaminating the food supply. The inspector general noted a case where a slaughterhouse found four drugs—ivermectin, sulfadimethozine, florfenicol, and sulfamethazine—yet, released the meat from these carcasses into the food supply despite the fact that consuming these drugs could result in stomach, nerve, or skin problems, but the USDA ordered no recall.
Now the USDA doesn’t actually have the authority to demand a recall—which is a problem in itself—but they can, at any time, at least ask a company to voluntarily recall the meat. So when’s the last time they asked a company to recall their meat due to illegally high drug residues? The USDA hasn’t even asked since 1979.
And this is not the first time the USDA has been cited for failing to protect the public. This was exposed twenty-five years ago by the National Academy of Sciences. So what happened? What happened in 1984, according to the Inspector General, is they signed an MOU. And then, the problem remained unresolved for the next 25 years. So that’s what we’ve been eating all this time.
So what does the Inspector General propose now? Number one recommendation: Start from scratch. The government needs to reestablish the National Residue program so that it can accomplish its mission of safeguarding the U.S. food supply. What will the USDA’s response be now? Maybe they’ll draw up another memo.
In the meanwhile, if we insist on doing drugs, though our diet, which meat has been found to be at highest risk for contamination? It’s the veal. Think about how they’re raised, yaknow?

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by veganmontreal.

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Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. And check out the other videos on meat. Also, there are 1,686 other subjects covered in the rest of my videos--please feel free to explore them as well!

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts: Harvard’s Meat and Mortality StudiesAdding FDA-Approved Viruses to Meat, How Chemically Contaminated Are We?, How To Reduce Dietary Antibiotic Intake, and Bugs & Drugs in Pork: Yersinia and Ractopamine

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/mgreger/ Michael Greger M.D.

    Please feel free to post any ask-the-doctor type questions here in the comments section and I’d be happy to try to answer them. And check out the other videos on meat. Also, there are 1,449 other subjects covered in the rest of my videos–please feel free to explore them as well!

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/justava/ justava

    Does eating cumulative antibiotics in the food chain have an effect on one’s resistance to the drug if one has to take oral antibiotics at some time in the future, for example, H.pylori treatment which uses megadose antibiotics in the regimen (HPpac)?

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/hamed-nasrabadigmail-com/ hamed.nasrabadi@gmail.com

    Hi Dr. Greger. Why veal has a higher risk of drug residues compared to beef? I was thinking that calf liver is less risky compared to cow liver!

    • CP

       ”If the cow is poisonous I’ll just eat its babies and then that will be cool. “

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    For some context, please check out my associated blog post Harvard’s Meat and Mortality Studies!

  • Michael Greger M.D.

    For some context, please check out my associated blog post Harvard’s Meat and Mortality Studies!

  • mostafa

    Hi Dr. Greger.glad to meat you ther is a matter that im dealing with it for a long time.&its that why herbal antibiotics are nt use in veterinary medicine?& if its used do u know where and how?because in that way we will not have any antibiotics residue in meats .am i right?thanks a lot.