by George Looby

Consumer Reports conducts evaluations on the whole range of merchandise and products used by the average citizen in their daily life. These evaluations are designed to give the consumer the best possible buy for each dollar spent. Almost every conceivable consumable is tested in the laboratories owned and operated by the Consumer Reports organization in as unbiased a manner as possible. Similar products from the whole range of producers are pitted against one another to determine which is the best buy. Comparing one item against another can be done with reasonable objectivity but when it comes to food safety the situation becomes a bit stickier.

Food handling and sanitation has improved markedly over the years but there are still gaps in handling from their point of origin to the consumer’s table. There will always be a certain element along the processing chain that is willing to bend the rules. A recent article in Consumer Reports dealt with the presence of certain medications in a variety of beef, pork and chicken products – medications that under any circumstances should not have been there.

Over many decades the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA has ensured that food products have been of the highest quality. Despite the oversight provided by the agency, there are lapses that give rise to cause for concern. Recent legislation made the use of antibiotics in livestock and poultry much more regulated. Livestock that in any way becomes part of the human food chain cannot receive antibiotics without the oversight and prescription of a licensed veterinarian. No longer can antibiotics be used by a producer for the purpose of growth enhancement or the control of low grade intestinal illnesses.

In its survey of a large number of randomly selected samples of chicken, pork and beef, Consumer Reports (CR) found evidence of four drugs that have been used for many years in veterinary medicine and some in human medicine. When officials at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) were asked about the findings of CR, the agency replied that the results should be discounted because they came from unconfirmed screening tests. The drugs in question were ketamine, phenylbutazone (bute) and cloramphenicol. Ketamine was introduced as an anesthetic-like drug often used in cat surgery. Phenylbutazone has been used for alleviating pain, especially in horses, but it has never been used in human medicine. Chloramphenicol is an antibiotic with a wide range of uses.

There appears to be some disagreement among various authorities as to what constitutes an unacceptable level of a given drug. It should be remembered that the levels being discussed are very low, sometimes below that which can be detected by older testing equipment. The FSIS maintains that the samples identified as positive by CR had never been validated for certain drugs or animals. Further, it stated that reporting unconfirmed data is misleading, as these data do not represent any public health risk to consumers.

The investigators at CR take a contrary view, pointing out the testing and methodology used by the FSIS to check for drug residues is very rigorous, capable of detecting even very small amounts of drugs. There seems to be a disparity as to what constitutes an acceptable level. Other countries appear to have different standards when it comes to setting limits. Regulators in Europe set a standard of 1 – 1.1 ppb for the presence of phenylbutazone after horse meat was found mixed in with beef. That drug is commonly administered to horses and is legal for that purpose. In America the limit for the drug in pork is set at 50 ppb (it should be noted the drug is seldom administered to swine).

As might be expected there is also a gap between what the investigators at CR find acceptable and that which is acceptable in the food industry. The limit of quantitation (LOQ) relates to the lowest amount of a substance that an instrument and testing procedure can reliably measure. The FSIS does not use LOQ. In 2012, FSIS began using newer technology which measures possible injurious materials at a far lower levels than had been possible previously. With this technology the FSIS chose to set new standards which they call the minimum level of acceptability (MLA). This gave the agency some wiggle room whereby they might choose to ignore, at least temporarily, some of the findings that the new testing techniques might reveal. If a potentially harmful substance was discovered at an extremely low level the agency might choose to use MLA as means of taking no action regarding the findings. There seems to be a lack of uniformity among government agencies as to what poses a potential danger and at what level. One example cited was a load of shrimp from Malaysia that was blocked by the FDA because it contained chloramphenicol as low as .3 ppb while the cutoff for the same drug in meat by the FSIS is 3 ppb.

With all of the regulations in place, how do these substances get into the food chain? The quick answer is that there are several possible routes. Some substances are naturally occurring – chloramphenicol was first discovered from a substance growing in the soil. The same compound being widely used in medicine (legal in small animals) can appear in run off or in excrement that can find its way into the water or food that animals consume. There is a large market in counterfeit drugs, originating mostly in Asia, which appear to be marketed to manufacturing but are easily diverted to illegal veterinary outlets.

There are a variety of reasons given for the FSIS having failed to address the standards question in a more positive way. One may be the magnitude of the problem; the agency simply does not have the resources to set more rigorous standards and enforce them. With each amount that a given acceptable level is lowered, enforcement becomes a greater burden. Some experts feel the wrong cuts of meat are being tested, as most contaminants tend to accumulate in the liver and kidneys. The FSIS says these are not the parts that most consumers tend to eat and so the reason for the present policy. Penalties may include warning letters, injunctions, seizures and placing the names of repeat offenders on a publicly reported list.