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WASHINGTON — Beef containing harmful pesticides, veterinary antibiotics and heavy metals is being sold to the public because federal agencies have failed to set limits for the contaminants or adequately test for them, a federal audit finds.
A program set up to test beef for chemical residues "is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for … dangerous substances, which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce," says the audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Inspector General.
The health effects on people who eat such meat are a "growing concern," the audit adds.
The testing program for cattle is run by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which also tests meat for such pathogens as salmonella and certain dangerous strains of E. coli. But the residue program relies on assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets tolerance levels for human exposure to pesticides and other pollutants, and the Food and Drug Administration, which does the same for antibiotics and other medicines.
Limits have not been set by the EPA and FDA "for many potentially harmful substances, which can impair FSIS' enforcement activities," the audit found.
The FSIS said in a written statement that the agency has agreed with the inspector general on "corrective actions" and will work with the FDA and EPA "to prevent residues or contaminants from entering into commerce."
Even when the inspection service does identify a lot of beef with high levels of pesticide or antibiotics, it often is powerless to stop the distribution of that meat because there is no legal limit for those contaminants.
In 2008, for example, Mexican authorities rejected a U.S. beef shipment because its copper levels exceeded Mexican standards, the audit says. But because there is no U.S. limit, the FSIS had no grounds for blocking the beef's producer from reselling the rejected meat in the United States.
"It's unacceptable. These are substances that can have a real impact on public health," says Tony Corbo, a lobbyist for Food and Water Watch, a public interest group. "This administration is making a big deal about promoting exports, and you have Mexico rejecting our beef because of excessive residue levels. It's pretty embarrassing."
Some contamination is inadvertent, such as pesticide residues in cows that drink water fouled by crop runoff. Other contaminants, such as antibiotics, often are linked to the use of those chemicals in farming. For example, the audit says, veal calves often have higher levels of antibiotic residue because ranchers feed them milk from cows treated with the drugs. Overuse of the antibiotics help create antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases.
"Beef farmers and ranchers pride themselves on producing a safe and wholesome product, and anything less is unacceptable," says Meghan Pusey, a spokeswoman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "We remain committed to working with industry and government partners to eliminate rare safety incidences from a meat supply that is extraordinarily safe by any nation's standards."
Others say legislative action is needed, especially to curb problems with antibiotic residues.
The audit "shows clearly the need for quick action by Congress to place some reasonable limits on the use of antibiotics in farm animals," says Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., who has more than 100 co-sponsors on her bill to ban seven types of antibiotics from being used indiscriminately in animal feed. "If we don't remedy this problem, who knows what kind of havoc these residues will have on our bodies."
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