Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D-NY) this week issued a news release titled: As July 4thapproaches, Slaughter reveals “what’s in the beef.” Actually, she does no such thing.
The release outlines a survey Slaughter’s office conducted, asking restaurant chains, retailers and meat processors about their suppliers’ use of antibiotics in food-animal production. In an attempt to write a clever and provocative headline, Slaughter misrepresents her survey results and American beef producers in one sentence. The headline clearly implies that the Congresswoman is going to tell us something new and startling about antibiotics in beef. In fact, her survey tells us nothing about what’s actually in (or not in) beef, except of course, beef.
The survey consisted of a letter Slaughter sent to food companies in February, asking them to detail their policies regarding antibiotic use in animal agriculture. She also asked each company for specific percentages of beef, pork and poultry they purchase from suppliers based on several degrees of antibiotic use:
- No antibiotic use for any reason
- Antibiotics only for the treatment of disease
- Antibiotics used for treatment and control of disease
- Routine use of antibiotics (for growth promotion, feed efficiency and disease prevention)
Naturally, there was a range of information companies were able to provide. A few companies that market premium “natural” meats have developed supply chains based on no antibiotic use, so they were able to respond with hard numbers. Most others have varying policies regarding acceptable antibiotic use and varying levels of control over their supply chains. In their responses, a number of the companies point out that while they purchase meat from suppliers that use antibiotics, they adhere to FDA and USDA policies for judicious use, withdrawal periods, audits and residue testing. Several noted they support FDA’s latest guidance to phase out of sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics important to human medicine and increase veterinary oversight of antibiotic use. Those companies generally received poor grades in Slaughter’s report.
In her news release, Slaughter neglects to mention that by law, any person administering antibiotics to livestock must follow withdrawal periods, and that the FDA and USDA have a coordinated surveillance program to monitor for antibiotic residues. Penalties for marketing finished cattle or beef that violate residue policies can include fines, closure of businesses and jail time. Fortunately, those occurrences are exceedingly rare. In 2008, just three one-thousandths of one percent (0.003%) of more than 33 million cattle slaughtered in federally inspected plants had antimicrobial residue violations.
In its 2010 residue sampling results, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) documents 1,221 domestically scheduled samples from beef cows, bulls, heavy calves, heifers and steers. Testing revealed zero antibiotic-residue violations. They did find 3 violations in bob veal animals and one in dairy cows.
In addition to antibiotics, FSIS tests for a range of residues including avermectins, beta agonists, pesticides, chloramphenicol and sulfonamides. From 1,607 samples from steers in 2010, testing revealed only one residue violation – for pesticides – resulting in a total violation frequency of 0.06 percent. Heifers were tested for antibiotics (276 samples) and sulfonamides (193 samples). There were no violations or non-violative positives.
So what’s in the beef? Beef!
There always is room for improvement of course, and just this week FSIS announced plans to streamline and enhance its National Residue Program. Unfortunately, neither science nor facts play well in the political arena.