Got Milk? Got Drugs? Got Both?: State Responds After Idaho Dairy Cattle Test Positive in Food Safety Tests 

High levels of antibiotics and other drugs found in cattle linked to dairies

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A primer in American history is necessary to understand food safety and meat inspection in the United States. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln founded the USDA, appointing a chemist to oversee what would become the FDA. As stockyards and large meat packing plants multiplied, President Chester Arthur established the Bureau of Animal Industry, the forerunner of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Inspections of meat and cattle sent to slaughter began as early as 1891. What followed was historic. Author Upton Sinclair took aim at the brutal, exploitive meat packing industry in 1905's The Jungle, prompting President Theodore Roosevelt's order to post federal inspectors in meat packing houses. The FDA was formalized in 1927 and regular inspection of the nation's meat, poultry and dairy became commonplace.

In 2010, the FSIS reported blatant violations in the U.S. food chain. A survey of dairy cows sent to slaughter for beef discovered illegal amounts of drug residue in the livers and kidneys of cows that otherwise would have been turned into hamburger or T-bones. In other words, hundreds of positive samples of drug residues were found in tissues of animals destined for the nation's meat supply.

The drugs ranged from the familiar (penicillin) to the obscure (tilmicosin, an anti-microbial used for respiratory disease). FSIS even detected gentamicin. Two federal veterinarians confirmed that gentamicin can remain for up to three years in a cow's organs. The Institute for Safe Medication Practices labels gentamicin as a "high alert medication," cautioning the drug has a "heightened risk of causing significant harm." Its manufacturer, Lexi-Comp, lists possible adverse reactions to the central nervous system, skeletal instability and renal failure.

According to the FSIS, approximately 20,000 samples of tissue from cattle, swine, sheep and goats are tested each year. In 2010, more than 1,100 violations were traced to dairy cows that had been sent to slaughter and 40 of the violations were tracked to Idaho.

"These are scientifically chosen samples, based on several algorithms," explained an FSIS spokesperson. Federal inspectors do initial sampling at meat processing plants. If there is reason for suspicion, a larger sample is forwarded to one of three FSIS laboratories for confirmation.

In each instance the FSIS residue violation report traced the source to cattle, the majority being dairy cows, which had been sent to beef auction. The 40 incidents in Idaho included eight separate drugs, including 11 violations of illegal limits of penicillin in the kidney. Eight were traced to flunixin, an anti-inflammatory analgesic, and six violations were traced to sulfadimethoxine, an antibiotic. There were four separate violations of the use of gentamicin (any trace of the drug is a violation). There were four more violations of tilmicosin (though it's not officially banned, its tolerance level is zero).

Some of the violations were off the charts. In July 2010, the FSIS discovered residue of flunixin in a cow traced to the Double A Dairy in Jerome. FSIS said the cow had flunixin 2,000 percent more than the allowed level. In another violation, a dairy cow traced back to a beef auction at the Producers Livestock Marketing Association in Jerome had sulfamethazine in its liver at 27,000 percent higher than the legal level.

"Obviously, we care a great deal about our industry," said Jordan Lake, spokesman for Double A Dairy. "But that's all I can tell you. We've been told to refer all your calls to the Idaho Dairymen's Association."

When we told Lake that the association had not returned any of our calls, he said that's all he could say.

The Violators

"Drug residue violations in dairy cattle tissues often result from poor practices on the farm," said Stephanie Yao, spokesman for the FDA. Yao said that the practices may include failing to maintain treatment records, failing to identify treated animals, abusing dosages, increasing the length of treatment and/or giving a drug by an unapproved route of administration.

"The FDA is concerned that the same poor management practices which led to the meat residues may also result in drug residues in milk," wrote the FDA in a January statement.

"The intent is to conduct the sampling assignment with the cooperation of the states and the milk industry to specifically target those dairies with a history of drug residue violations," said Yao. "The data obtained from this assignment will provide evidence as to whether the practices on these dairies that have resulted in tissue residue violations are also creating potential milk safety concerns."

Inspectors test Idaho milk on a regular basis, checking for common antibiotics such as penicillin and ampicillin. But the 2010 FSIS list of violations confirmed what many feared: Dairy farmers may be using drugs that are not regularly tested.

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