Contaminants in Beef Not Yet Regulated by EPA or FDA

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According to an audit by the Office of Inspector General, a department of the US Department of Agriculture, beef containing harmful pesticides, antibiotics, and heavy metals is being sold to the public because two major federal agencies have not set limits for the contaminants or can adequately test for their presence.

The audit stems from an incident that occurred in 2008, when Mexican authorities rejected a shipment of US beef because it contained excess levels of copper. Because the US has no such restrictions, the meat was sold to US consumers instead.

Copper is an essential nutrient, and deficiencies have been found in beef cattle, resulting in diarrhea, poor weight gain, broken bones, infertility and decreased resistance to disease. Farmers may supplement their animals to prevent these health effects, but an improper dose can lead to toxicity. Copper toxicity can also result from the drinking of a copper sulfate footbath (primarily in dairy farms) and pesticide ingestion.

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The USDA OIG found that the testing program for cattle, run by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, or FSIS, “is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for…dangerous substances, which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce.” Even when high levels of pesticides or antibiotics are found in beef, the agency is powerless to stop its sale to consumers because there are no guidelines set for the contaminants.

The program relies on information from the EPA for appropriate tolerance levels for human exposure to pesticides and the FDA provides data on the amount of antibiotics and other medicines should be present in meat. These agencies have failed to set such limits, according to the audit.

Some contamination is obviously inadvertent, such as cows drinking crop runoff water that may contain pesticide residues. However, some of the chemicals in use are intentional, such as the use of antibiotics or nutritional supplementation to prevent disease or to encourage growth. About 70% of all antibiotics used in the United States are fed to cattle, pigs and poultry, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

However, all compounds present in meat for human consumption should be evaluated for safety and limits set for those which may be harmful. Meghan Pusey, spokesperson for the National Cattleman’s Beef Association says that beef producers are taking steps to better ensure that pesticide and antibiotic residues don't get into meat destined for the public. "Beef farmers and ranchers pride themselves on producing a safe and wholesome product, and anything less is unacceptable," she says.

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