Factory farmed chicken has been identified as the food responsible for the greatest number of foodborne illnesses, thanks to the presence of pathogenic bacteria, many of which are resistant to antibiotics. Now, testing reveals chicken and other meats may also contain drugs that are banned for use in food animals.
As reported by Consumer Reports,1 drugs such as ketamine, phenylbutazone and chloramphenicol are all found in the U.S. meat supply.
“The data — as well as Consumer Reports’ review of other government documents and interviews with farmers, industry experts, government officials and medical professionals — raise serious concerns about the safeguards put in place to protect the U.S. meat supply,” the article states, adding:2
“These concerns start with how poultry, cattle, and pigs are raised in this country. And they include questions about how the federal government tests meat from these animals, and how it investigates and enforces potential violations.”
Banned Drugs Found in Meats Across US
The Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is the agency responsible for ensuring the safety of the American meat supply. The FSIS test data in question came to light during discovery in a lawsuit against Sanderson Farms, brought by the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety.
The plaintiffs claim Sanderson Farms falsely advertises its chicken as 100 percent natural, as the company feeds its chickens antibiotics.3 (Sanderson Farms is also facing a class action lawsuit by investors,4 who charge the company with making “materially false and misleading statements regarding the company’s business, operational and compliance policies.”
According to the complaint, Sanderson has been engaged in price fixing, which is a violation of antitrust laws, and revenues during the three years in question were therefore the result of illegal conduct.)
Through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, OCA, Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety obtained FSIS testing data showing the presence of a number of drugs that are strictly prohibited for use in beef, poultry and/or pork production. Other meat samples were found to contain drugs that, while not banned, must be eliminated from the animal’s system before it can be slaughtered. According to Consumer Reports, which reviewed the data:
“The samples came from producers large and small, and included meat destined for supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, schools and elsewhere. Yet FSIS officials have taken little if any action based on the data.
When asked to explain why not, Esteban, at the FSIS, said the samples didn’t meet several criteria used by the agency to decide when a sample requires follow-up testing. For example, he said that some results came from tests that have never been validated for certain animals or drugs.
And, he said, in many cases the results were below a level that the agency considers worrisome. The agency subsequently released a second set of data that, it says, reflected test results after those criteria had been applied, and that made the initial results invalid.
In a written response, an agency spokesperson said, ‘Reporting preliminary unconfirmed data will be misleading as these data do not represent any public health risk to consumers.’ Consumer Reports’ food safety scientists disagree.”
Why Is FSIS Ignoring Its Own Test Results?
One Consumer Reports food safety scientist is James E. Rogers, Ph.D. Rogers was a microbiologist at the FSIS for 13 years before joining Consumer Reports as director of food safety research and testing. According to Rogers:
“These results are credible enough that you would expect the government to take the warning signs seriously. You would hope the results would prompt the agency to look into why these drugs may be present, what risks they could pose, and what could be done to protect consumers.”
The FSIS also has higher cutoff limits for drugs and other chemicals (such as pesticides) than other government agencies, which raises even more questions about safety. In the case of the potent and dangerous antibiotic chloramphenicol,5 the FSIS cutoff is 10 times higher than that of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).6 As noted by Consumer Reports:
“Some experts … worry that by relying on higher cutoffs, the FSIS may overlook possible health threats. Some research, including a 2015 review in the Journal of Veterinary Science & Toxicology, suggests that long-term exposure to low levels of drug residue in meat could increase the risk of cancer, fetal harm, antibiotic resistance, and more.”
What’s more, a number of the samples were found to contain banned drugs at levels above the FSIS cutoff. Still, no action was taken. Also befuddling is the FSIS’ failure to investigate how the drugs are getting into the meat in the first place.
Four Drugs of Concern
The four drugs identified as particularly troubling, and the levels found in some of the 6,000 meat samples, were:
• Chloramphenicol7 — This antibiotic is associated with several toxic effects in humans, including aplastic anemia (inability to produce new blood cells, basically, a fatal form of anemia), and this effect is not dose dependent.
Because of its severe health risks to humans, chloramphenicol is only permitted in dogs and cats, yet the drug was found in beef, chicken, pork and turkey samples. The highest levels were found in beef.
In all, 81 of 2,865 beef samples contained this dangerous drug, and 12 of them contained levels above the FSIS cutoff (which again is 10 times higher than the FDA’s cutoff for imported foods). Pork, followed by chicken, had the next-highest levels.
• Phenylbutazone — This anti-inflammatory pain reliever is also known to cause aplastic anemia in humans, along with other blood disorders and cancer. Twenty-four of 1,448 pork samples contained the drug; one was above the FSIS cutoff.
• Ketamine — Ketamine is a hallucinogenic anesthetic, used experimentally as an antidepressant. Of 4,313 beef and pork samples combined, 225 had ketamine above the threshold suggested by Consumer Reports, while 15 were above the FSIS cutoff.
• Nitroimidazole — An antifungal drug with suspected carcinogenic activity, of 5,756 beef, pork and poultry samples, 667 contained the drug, 136 of which were above the cutoff set by FSIS.
How Are the Drugs Getting Into the Meat?
In my view, the factory farm system is a breeding ground for intentional misuse, as profits are tied to the weight of each animal So, just how are these drugs entering the meat supply? Consumer Reports lists a number of possible routes of entry or exposure, including:
- Improper use, such as giving too high a dose or administering too close to slaughter
- Counterfeit drugs8
- Contaminated feed
- Intentional misuse
For example, Consumer Reports notes that “cattle that can’t stand on their own are not allowed to be used for meat. So … lame cattle are sometimes given phenylbutazone — a painkiller — shortly before slaughter, so they can ‘get the animal through the slaughterhouse gates without anybody looking closer.'”
Chickens are also raised to be as large and meaty as possible. Chicken farmers actually do not own the chickens. The vast majority of chicken farmers in the U.S. are contract farmers. The poultry company owns the chickens from start to finish, and the farmer gets paid to raise them, based on how large they are at time of processing.
The larger the chickens, the more money the farmer makes, and this creates a tempting incentive for farmers to use growth promoting drugs, especially since many drugs aren’t even being tested for, and when found, there are no dire ramifications anyway.
US Department of Agriculture Denies There’s a Problem
The very same day Consumer Reports published its report, Carmen Rottenberg, acting deputy undersecretary for food safety at FSIS, issued a press statement9 assuring Americans that food safety is her No. 1 priority, and that:
“When you see the USDA mark of inspection, you can have confidence that the products have been inspected and passed — meaning that every carcass has been inspected, samples have been taken by USDA inspectors and analyzed by scientists in a USDA laboratory, and the labeling is truthful and not misleading.”
She also explains that the test results showing banned drugs in poultry were “mistakenly released in response to a FOIA request” in the agency’s “haste to be transparent and responsive.”
“You may have seen a Consumer Reports story claiming that the poultry and meat you purchase in the grocery store and feed your families could contain harmful drug residues. That is not true. This story is sensational and fear-based infotainment aimed at confusing shoppers with pseudoscience and scare tactics,” Rottenberg writes.
How Thorough Are Meat Inspections?
However, there’s no conceivable way for every single carcass to be thoroughly inspected, sampled and analyzed for the presence of drugs and pathogens. In fact, if you read her statement closely, she admits as much.
According to Rottenberg, the FSIS inspection process involves inspecting every single carcass, testing for drug residues “at multiple points,” and if a sample tests positive during screening, follow-up testing is done to confirm it. She also claims that “if drug residues are found in any meat or poultry product, FSIS does not allow that product to be sold for human consumption.”
However, just how thorough of an inspection can you do when, as a food inspector, 140 carcasses per minute go by? That’s the line speed for slaughter, which means an inspector is looking at two to three chickens per second! (The line speed in processing plants is unregulated.) Last year, the National Chicken Council petitioned the FSIS to increase the slaughter line speed to 175 birds per minute. As noted by Food Safety News,10
“The primary food safety threat in this part of the process is removing visible fecal material … Because the presence of feces on carcasses is gross, a facility has every incentive to ensure it is removed as no one would purchase the product. Similarly, since feces can present a food safety threat, continued visual inspection by FSIS is necessary.”
Visual inspection for fecal contamination certainly makes sense, but neither bacteria nor drugs can be detected visually, and a carcass does not need to have visual excrement on it in order to be contaminated with fecal bacteria. Each year, an estimated 8 billion11 to 9 billion12 chickens are processed in the U.S. Are these billions of chickens tested for pathogens and drugs? No. That’s done through sampling.
If every single carcass were tested for pathogens and drugs, and none found to contain harmful substances were sold for human consumption, chicken would not be causing more than 3,100 foodborne illnesses each year13 and spot testing14 of meat sold in grocery stores across the U.S. would not reveal fecal bacteria on 83 percent of supermarket meats (turkey, pork, ground beef and chicken).15,16
Clearly, the reality of such findings does not conform to Rottenberg’s assurances that every single carcass undergoes thorough inspection and testing. Factory farmed chicken in particular has become a notorious carrier of salmonella, campylobacter, clostridium perfringens and listeria bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant strains.17
Is FSIS Just Trying to Cover Up Its Shortcomings?
Rogers has also published an extensive reply to Rottenberg’s press statement. As a former FSIS scientist who is familiar with the agency’s testing, his rebuttal is informative, and I suggest you read it in its entirety, although I’ve included a longer than normal excerpt below.18
Based on Roger’s rebuttal, it seems clear that USDA is engaging in a deceptive PR strategy, accusing Consumer Reports of fearmongering and publishing unverified results, even though the data came from their own testing. Rogers explains, in part:
“As a scientist and former FSIS official, I intimately understand how the agency collects, tests, and measures contaminants in food. When we looked at testing data from the FSIS, both an initial and then revised set, serious concerns came to light about the process, the standards applied, and the findings themselves.
At the heart of the matter is that there should never be any of these banned substances in the food supply.
In the case of this testing, the FSIS created what can only be called an arbitrary and self-determined threshold, far above the legal threshold for the drugs chloramphenicol, ketamine, nitroimidazoles, and phenylbutazone, which is zero and what the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act mandates.
The FSIS has attempted to redirect the conversation about [Consumer Reports’] investigation to make it about the completeness of the data, offering up the explanation that the initial data was preliminary and released in error, and should be dismissed. The meat industry has, not surprisingly, supported that position.
Here’s the truth: The initial data set recorded thousands of data points showing detectable amounts of drugs in meat samples. The revised set issued by FSIS, using their arbitrary threshold, showed many of the results changed to ‘Residue Not Detected.’
However, when the results that did remain were compared to the initial set, near-identical results appeared, including down to the final decimal place. The only scientific conclusion we can draw is that the entire initial data set is both real and meaningful; in many cases, trace amounts were no longer included simply because they did not meet the FSIS’s arbitrary threshold.”
USDA Is Charged With Promoting Factory Raised Meat
A part of the USDA’s dilemma is the fact that, while responsible for food inspection and safety, it is also responsible for the promotion of the very industry it regulates. You’re probably aware that the food industry has the power to influence your eating habits through the use of advertising and lobbying for industry-friendly regulations.
What you might not be aware of is the fact that the U.S. government actually funds some of these activities through the collection and distribution of taxes on certain foods, including beef.19 By doing so, the government is actively supporting agricultural systems that are adverse to public and environmental health, and discourages the adoption of healthier and more ecologically sound farming systems such as grass fed beef production.
In a nutshell, the USDA beef checkoff program20 is a mandatory program that requires cattle producers to pay a $1 fee per head of cattle sold. It’s basically a federal tax on cattle, but the money doesn’t go to the government; it goes to state beef councils, the national Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB) and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
All of these organizations are clearly biased toward the concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) model. The money is collected by state beef councils, which keep half and send the other half of the funds to the national CBB, which is in charge of the national beef promotion campaign. Nationwide, the beef checkoff fees add up to about $80 million annually.
As the primary contractor for the checkoff program, the NCBA receives a majority of the checkoff proceeds, which is used for research and promotion of beef. The iconic “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” slogan came out of this program.
USDA food inspectors are also vulnerable to regulatory capture — a term used to describe what happens when inspectors become excessively influenced by industry — since they’re trying to enforce the law while working in a facility that pays for the inspector’s services.21
Not Eating Meat Is Not the Answer
While the presence of drugs and pathogens in meat might make you consider giving up on meat altogether and becoming a vegetarian, it’s important to realize that the problems with CAFOs by extension affects vegetables as well. CAFO manure is frequently used as fertilizer, and if there are dangerous pathogens in the manure, the plants become carriers.
Biosolids may also contain hazardous levels of heavy metals and other toxins. The most recent outbreak of E. coli — which infected 210 people in 36 states and killed five — was traced back to romaine lettuce contaminated by a nearby cattle farm.22,23
Runoff from the farm’s manure lagoons is thought to have entered and contaminated a nearby canal, and this E. coli-tainted water was then used for irrigation on the lettuce fields. CAFOs are also a major source of groundwater contamination. As noted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality:24
“Nationwide and in Arizona, the potential for surface and ground water pollution exists through livestock facility discharge of manure-contaminated run off to natural waterways and through wastewater leaching to aquifers.”
One of the best ways to ensure food safety is to shop locally from a farmer you know and trust. Most farmers are happy to answer questions about how they grow and raise their food, and will give you a tour if you ask them. This may be particularly important for chicken.
While many grocery stores now carry organic foods, it’s preferable to source yours from local growers whenever possible, as many organic foods sold in grocery stores are imported.25 If you live in the U.S., the following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods:
American Grassfed Association — The goal of the American Grassfed Association is to promote the grass fed industry through government relations, research, concept marketing and public education.
Their website also allows you to search for AGA approved producers certified according to strict standards that include being raised on a diet of 100 percent forage; raised on pasture and never confined to a feedlot; never treated with antibiotics or hormones; and born and raised on American family farms.
EatWild.com — EatWild.com provides lists of farmers known to produce raw dairy products as well as grass fed beef and other farm-fresh produce (although not all are certified organic). Here you can also find information about local farmers markets, as well as local stores and restaurants that sell grass fed products.
Weston A. Price Foundation — Weston A. Price has local chapters in most states, and many of them are connected with buying clubs in which you can easily purchase organic foods, including grass fed raw dairy products like milk and butter.
Grassfed Exchange — The Grassfed Exchange has a listing of producers selling organic and grass fed meats across the U.S.
Local Harvest — This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass fed meats and many other goodies.
Farmers Markets — A national listing of farmers markets.
Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals — The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, hotels and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
The Cornucopia Institute — The Cornucopia Institute maintains web-based tools rating all certified organic brands of eggs, dairy products and other commodities, based on their ethical sourcing and authentic farming practices separating CAFO “organic” production from authentic organic practices.
RealMilk.com — If you’re still unsure of where to find raw milk, check out Raw-Milk-Facts.com and RealMilk.com. They can tell you what the status is for legality in your state, and provide a listing of raw dairy farms in your area.
The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund26 also provides a state-by-state review of raw milk laws.27 California residents can also find raw milk retailers using the store locator available at www.OrganicPastures.com.