November 2018
From the State Vet's Office

Defending the Safety of our Meat Supply

I have always thought Consumer Reports was a pretty good reference if a person was going to buy a new vacuum cleaner, mattress or refrigerator. But then there is the occasional article that makes it to print that I just must roll my eyes and think, "Really?" That is the case that I had with an article that came out Aug. 29, 2018, that appears in the October 2018 issue. The title of the article is, "What’s in Your Meat?" and asks, "Are Banned Drugs in Your Meat?"

If you ask me what the main responsibilities of my job are, I would probably tell you that they are to work from a regulatory standpoint to reduce disease in the animal agriculture community and, to a lesser extent, to make sure that meat from animals produced in Alabama is safe to eat. So, when an article, even though it does not come out and say our meat is unsafe, puts doubt in the mind of the consumer, I get this feeling I need to respond. I do want to emphasize that I do not have my head in the sand and think nothing ever gets into our food supply that is not supposed to be there, but when it comes to a question of safety, I believe our food is the safest ever in the history of mankind.

The Consumer Reports article began by listing some of the drugs found in meat that could potentially have adverse effects on the person consuming them. However, I wish they had said the adverse effects were related to how much is consumed. Our ability to detect violative drugs and chemicals is reported in parts per million – sometimes even parts per billion. I am going to attempt to help you understand what a part per million is. That will be helpful for you to understand as we continue through this article and if you’re ever on "Jeopardy." Take a liter of fluid (a liter is a little less than a quart) and take out a drop, then divide that drop into 200 equal parts. Then take one of those 200 equal parts of the drop and replace it with something else like pure antibiotic. Then, if you put all the parts along with the antibiotic back into the liter of fluid, the antibiotic would be one part per million. That is a little bit of a crude way to look at it, but that gives you the picture of how this stuff is measured.

USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), as well as state meat inspection programs, are responsible for testing for violative substances in meat. As I did a little research for this column I went back and looked at the FSIS Directive for testing for violative substances. The Consumer Reports article states that most meat is never tested and when it is, it is only randomly tested. I beg to differ. If you read the 43-page directive that lists all the conditions that automatically trigger residue testing at the slaughterhouse, you will find that they have their bases covered more than adequately.

Also, FSIS publishes a list of drug residue violations on their website so that anyone can see what they are finding. I looked at some of the results for recent months. Almost all violations were from drugs approved for use in food animals and most of the time the violations were levels not much more than the allowable level. The first one listed for the week of Sept. 6, 2018, was the drug ceftiofur. You may know it as Naxcel. The allowable limit for this antibiotic is 0.4 parts per million, less than our 1/200 of a drop in the liter of fluid. The level of the drug found in the kidney was 0.425. I can’t even imagine things that small. The kidney is the organ in the body that would probably have the highest concentration since that is how the body gets rid of that antibiotic. Anyway, when the residue level exceeds the tolerance level, the whole carcass is condemned.

The article also implied that many producers do whatever they can get away with just to make an extra dollar. That sort of aggravated me because I make my living working with producers and poultry companies. I know that cutting expenses and increasing profits are constantly on the minds of those who are trying to feed an ever-increasing population while commodity prices have not kept up with the cost of production. But I have NEVER known producers or companies to make cost-cutting decisions that put public health at risk.

The thing that gets lost in some of this information that is put out for human consumption that would pit animal agriculture against the consumer is that we in animal agriculture are consumers, too. I may not know much about how to repair a computer, but I do know a little about food animal production. I promise you that if I am not afraid to feed my family meat that comes out of the grocery store cooler, it is safe. Maybe I should ignore it, but that kind of stuff sometimes gets my blood pressure up. I am the government and I work with both state and federal government people. We make our living doing everything we can to make sure the food supply is safe and abundant for everyone.

The article did draw an immediate response from USDA-FSIS that severely criticized the "sensational and fear-based infotainment aimed at confusing shoppers with pseudoscience and scare tactics." USDA’s response went on to say, "Consumer Reports admits in their closing paragraph that the real agenda behind this piece is to convince Americans to eat less meat." Some of the information used in the article came from preliminary, unconfirmed reports the FSIS made available through a Freedom of Information Act request. The test results were inaccurate and when they forwarded the correct results, the Consumer Reports author chose to pass around the unconfirmed results as truthful and accurate, but they are not.

For years I have read Consumer Reports in the barber shop while I waited my turn to get my haircut. I always thought of them as a great resource when I needed know the best microwave oven, flat-screen TV or vehicle to buy. One thing is certain. That is not the resource I want informing consumers about meat and food safety. If you want to read the FSIS response, just Google "Food Safety Professionals Ensure that ‘What’s in Your Meat’ is Safe and Wholesome." If you don’t Google, ask a third-grader to help you or give me a call. Now I think I am going to have a bacon cheeseburger with some chicken fingers for dessert.



Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama. You can contact him at 334-240-7253.