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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s mission seems to be to promote agribusiness as well as public health, often leading to imperfect compromises, which is why many countries keep the two missions separate.

The USDA issues federal dietary guidelines every five years. As part of the last update, the agency released MyPlate, which recommends that consumers increase their overall plant food intake. Sadly, public adherence (even among children) to these guidelines has been low.

The USDA has frequently been criticized, even by the U.S. Inspector General, for neglecting to set maximum levels for residual drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals in meat. The USDA has also denied petitions to reduce levels of nitrite—a suspected carcinogen—in cured meat.  Another USDA issue concerns the large amount of antibiotics fed to farm animals, and the inherent danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

USDA inspection data provide information on the safety levels of the U.S. meat supply. USDA inspectors have previously found 25% of chicken they sampled to be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. A national survey of fecal samples found half of American cattle herds tested were infected with Yersinia bacteria, and most American beef has been found to be infested with sarcocystis parasites.  One in six lambs testd were infected with the parasite, toxoplasma, and a 2011 report of the USDA National Residue program indicated that out of 10 million slaughtered pigs in the U.S., only 310 were tested that year for ractopamine, an adrenaline-like drug.  The 2012 report acknowledged that no pigs were tested.

The agency has sometimes defended its actions by shifting some of the responsibility for food safety to the individuals who prepare the products. The USDA successfully appealed a 1974 court decision against it for approving Salmonella-tainted meat, by claiming that most cooks should use appropriate preparation methods.

The agency has repeatedly warned the egg industry about the health claims they try make about eggs. The USDA’s poultry research and promotion programs told the egg industry that it cannot claim that eggs help people with macular degeneration. In another case, the USDA corrected the egg industry for misrepresenting the American Heart Association’s position on egg intake.

As part of its mission to promote public health, the USDA maintains a nutrient database, which indicates, among other things, that dairy and meat contain up to 5% unhealthy trans fats. In 2007, the USDA produced an additional database that provided the antioxidant value of about 300 foods. However, in 2012, the USDA removed the database, concerned that the values were being misused by food and dietary supplement manufacturing companies to promote their products. 

 

Topic summary contributed by Jerry

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