Contamination of meat by heavy metals, veterinary drugs and pesticides is a problem which the U.S. government has for the most part ignored. And while bacterial contaminants can be killed by cooking, chemical residues stay in the meat.
“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.”
You are probably all-too-familiar with the contaminants lurking in the U.S. meat supply; that hormones, antibiotics and pesticides are part of most supermarket meat is practically common knowledge.
You might even know that 70% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are for animals, primarily to serve as growth enhancers.
What you may not know, however, is that a new report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has called into question the national Food Safety and Inspection Service’s (FSIS) ability to adequately monitor the safety of U.S. meat for potentially toxic residues.
Drug Residues, Heavy Metals Common in U.S. Meat
Residues of veterinary drugs, pesticides and heavy metals enter the food system when producers bring animals to slaughter that still have these toxins in their system. This occurs more often than you might think.
For instance, in the dairy industry if a farmer determines a sick cow is going to die, he will sell the animal as quickly as possible, even if it still has veterinary drugs in its system. This ensures he will get some return on his investment, at the expense of the Americans’ health who end up eating the medicated meat.
So-called “waste milk,” which is produced by medicated dairy cows and banned for human consumption, is also fed to veal calves, which then pass the meds on to the consumers that eat them.
I know what you’re thinking. Surely, there must be some type of regulatory agency in charge of monitoring for such blatant slip-ups as these. And there is. It goes by the name of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a program of the USDA.
Another Federal Agency Failing to Protect You
Unfortunately, FSIS’ regulatory practices are woefully inadequate. According to the USDA’s new report:
“Based on our review, we found that the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues. Together, FSIS, FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin3), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce.
Additionally, FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs.”
- Despite the EPA’s urging for FSIS to test meat for pesticides deemed high health risks, the agency only tests for one type of pesticide.
- Many potentially harmful substances have no set tolerance thresholds. This means that if the FSIS detects a toxin in meat, it cannot ban it from the food supply unless it exists in quantities over the tolerance threshold. If there is no set threshold, the meat cannot be banned, no matter what!
The report cites an example in 2008, when a shipment of U.S. beef was rejected by Mexico because of excess copper levels. The meat was instead distributed in the United States, where American consumers unknowingly consumed it, because the U.S. has no set tolerance for copper.
- In 2008, about 90 percent of residue violations occurred at dairy cow and veal plants. These producers had up to 211 violations that year, and many were repeat offenders.
Although FSIS had reviewed these plants “multiple times,” they did not perform an analysis that would have alerted them to the numerous violations. So the plants were treated as though a residue problem was “not reasonably likely to occur,” when this was obviously not the case.
- Even when meat is found to be contaminated, FSIS does not recall it! The report states:
“We also found that FSIS does not recall meat adulterated with harmful residue, even when it is aware that the meat has failed its laboratory tests. Between July 12, 2007, and March 11, 2008,
FSIS found that four carcasses were adulterated with violative levels of veterinary drugs8 and that the plants involved had released the meat into the food supply.
Although the drugs involved could result in stomach, nerve, or skin problems for consumers, FSIS requested no recall.”
These examples are glaring reasons why eating mass-produced meat is like playing Russian Roulette with your health. As the system stands, it is producing food that is not fit for human consumption, and federal regulators are allowing it to happen.
Even More Problems with the U.S. Meat Industry
The problems plaguing the meat industry are endemic among the entire U.S. food system. When food is produced and distributed on such a massive scale, contamination and poor quality become the norm.
Ground beef, for instance, is typically an amalgam of meat from different cows, from different slaughterhouses. So one burger could have come from hundreds of animals and different parts of the world.
Despite this, there is no federal requirement for meat grinders to test their ingredients for E.coli prior to selling them. And most retailers do not test either.
In fact, American Foodservice, which grinds 365 million pounds of hamburger a year, had to stop testing trimmings 10 years ago because slaughterhouses did not want to sell to them!
One retailer that does test their trimmings for E. coli before grinding is Costco, and according to The New York Times, Tyson will not supply them because they don’t want their product tested.
Back in August 2008, the USDA issued a guideline urging meat processors to test their ingredients before grinding. But the guideline is only optional and has been met with criticism from the meat industry.
As the New York Times reported, Dr. Kenneth Petersen, an assistant administrator with the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said they could mandate testing, but they had to first consider its impact on the companies, and not just you, the consumer. Dr. Petersen told The New York Times:
“I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”
So that gives you an idea of how safe your meat supply truly is.
It may look like a steak and it may smell like a steak … but the only way to really know what you’re eating -- if you got your meat at the supermarket that is -- is to send it out for lab testing!
For an insider look at this flawed system, read Michael Pollan’s expose from 2002; it remains one of the best overviews of what is wrong with the way beef is raised in the United States.
If you’re not a fan of feeling like your hamburger is part of a giant mad science experiment, listen up: there is a better way.
Demand Better Food and Producers Will Listen
If you still buy your meat at your local supermarket, you should know that you are directly supporting this inhumane and filthy system. And you can bet that as long as there are people willing to buy cheap, toxic meat, the industry will continue to produce it.
But, if you start to demand more -- meat that is raised in a healthy, humane way, free from toxins and disease -- producers will have no choice but to listen.
Already, this type of healthy, humanely raised meat is out there, and you can find it by purchasing your beef directly from a trusted rancher whose farming practices you’re familiar with. Supporting local farmers and ranchers can go a long way toward improving the entire food system, and more importantly, your personal health.
I realize that not everyone has access to small farmers, but food from local sources is increasing in popularity and is becoming much easier to come by.
There are a number of grass-fed beef ranchers in the United States that offer safe, high-quality meats. For an excellent list of sustainable agricultural groups in your area, please see Promoting Sustainable Agriculture -- this page is filled with resources for high-quality produce and meats in your area.