U.S. Gov't: We Failed to Protect Your Beef

A USDA audit finds pesticides, heavy metals, and veterinary medicines in supermarket meat. Even Mexico sent some of it back.

April 14, 2010

That's right: arsenic.

Getting ready to grill? Choose your beef sources carefully. A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) found that many dangerous substances, including pesticides, veterinary medicines, dioxin, and heavy metals like arsenic, are winding up in the nation's beef supply because government agencies haven't worked together to set limits. The report makes clear that coordination between the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is lacking, making it difficult to recall beef contaminated with these harmful substances. "They're all pointing their fingers at one another," says Tony Corbo, spokesman for the nonprofit watchdog group Food & Water Watch.

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The audit report, released by USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service's (FSIS's) Office of Inspector General, found that common contaminants that can make their way into beef are not currently restricted in meat, even though contamination could harm human health. For instance, FSIS says the following medicines, feed supplements, and other contaminants could harm human health when people eat tainted beef.

1. Flunixin, a veterinary drug that can cause kidney damage, stomach and colon ulcers, and blood in the stool of humans.

2. Penicillin, a drug that can cause life-threatening reactions in people who are allergic to it.

3. Ivermectin, an animal wormer that can cause neurological damage in humans.

4. Arsenic, a known carcinogen that is allowed in some non-organic animal feeding operations. (It is commonly fed to chickens, and chicken litter, or feces, is sometimes fed to feedlot cattle—the majority of supermarket and fast-food beef in this country comes from feedlot operations.)

5. Copper, an essential element we need for our survival, is harmful when too much accumulates in our bodies. And it is being found in beef we eat, although U.S. agencies haven't been protecting consumers from it, even though some third-world countries manage to do so. In 2008, Mexican authorities rejected U.S. beef because it contained copper in excess of Mexico's tolerance levels. Because the U.S. doesn't have a set threshold for copper in beef, the meat was sent to U.S. stores, and ultimately, purchased by consumers.

When we think of food safety, we generally think about E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes contamination making people sick, but this report sheds light on the problems of drug, pesticide, and heavy metal residues that can also accumulate in our bodies and make us sick. According to the report authors, "while cooking meat properly can destroy these pathogens before they are consumed, no amount of cooking will destroy residues. In some cases, heat may actually break residues down into components that are more harmful to consumers."

That's why it's more important than ever to seek out meat from sources you trust, and ideally, from farms where you can visit and perform an on-site inspection yourself, asking farmers what the animals eat, and seeing what type of conditions they live in.

Here's how to avoid getting sick from contaminated meat:

• Cut it out. The overuse of antibiotics in raising cattle and other livestock helps create antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases, which sometimes have lethal consequences. One such strain, MRSA, is estimated to kill 18,000 people a year—that's more than annual deaths from AIDS in this country. Support congressional efforts to eliminate the overuse of antibiotics on crowded, filthy cattle-feedlot operations, where animals are crammed together and fed unnatural corn and soy diets (they should be eating grass), which has been shown to increase the proliferation of the dangerous drug-resistant E. coli O157:H7 in the guts of the cattle.

Currently in Congress: On the House side, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has introduced H.R. 1549: Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009. This would limit the excessive use of antibiotics in farm livestock. The bill was S.619, sponsored by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) on the Senate side.

• Know your farmer. Buying organic, grass-fed beef often seems more expensive than conventional supermarket meat, but many food experts agree that feedlot meat doesn't reflect the true cost of the meat. In feedlot operations, thousands of cattle are squashed into a small area and fed antibiotics, hormones, and unnatural, government-subsidized feed to accelerate their growth and stave off infections. Virulent E. coli outbreaks have been linked to feedlots, and researchers are finding MRSA in supermarket meat, as well. It's best to buy from someone who you know raises animals in unconfined conditions, and who allows them to eat a natural diet to cut back on disease. Also, hormones and antibiotics are banned in USDA-certified organic meat production, so buy organic to protect your health. Visit EatWild.com for healthier beef options.

• Pretend it's always flu season. We know to wash our hands often during flu season, but with the proliferation of harmful superbugs in supermarket meat, it's important to wash your hands and properly sterilize all cutting boards, utensils, and surfaces after preparing meat. To learn about how to do this, read This or That: Vinegar or Bleach to Kill Germs?. (Hint: You never need to use antibacterial soaps—they add to the problem of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, and they cost more, too!)

Tags: Pesticides