Mexico Rejects Meat, US Eats It
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Sometimes – often, actually – I worry about our nation’s lack of trust in its government. In yesterday’s blog, I said if I wanted to become a dictator, I’d promote distrust so people would give up and stop paying attention. So it’s with considerable trepidation that I return to the subject of food safety to tell you this.
Results of an audit of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) by USDA’s Office of Inspector General find that the government agencies charged with setting limits for potentially harmful substances that can get into meat have not done so. The report explains,
One of the public food safety issues facing the United States is the contamination of meat with residual veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals. “Residue” of this sort finds its way into the food supply when producers bring animals to slaughter plants while they have these residual contaminants in their system. When the animals are slaughtered, traces of the drugs or pesticides contained in these animals’ meat is shipped to meat processors and retail supermarkets, and eventually purchased by consumers.
[I]n 2008, when Mexican authorities rejected a shipment of U.S. beef because it contained copper in excess of Mexico’s tolerances, FSIS had no basis to stop distribution of this meat in the United States since the FDA has set no tolerance for copper.
You read that right. Mexico has a limit on the amount of copper that is safe for human consumption. The United States does not. So when Mexico sent the meat back, it was sold to and eaten by US citizens.
According to medical reference books, copper poisoning is rare, and most often associated with prolonged contact between milk or an acidic food or drink (tomato juice, for example) and a copper container. Mild copper toxicity can cause a stomach ache, nausea, and diarrhea; it could easily be confused with a GI virus or stomach flu, and lasts about as long. It would take more than copper residue to cause fatal illness, but bodies are not made to store heavy metals and if your water comes through copper pipes or you cook with copper pots, you’re already getting some. You don’t need it in your meat.
Apparently, according to the audit report, it’s up to FSIS to ask the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set limits on residues of heavy metals, pesticides, and veterinary drugs, such as antibiotics. Copper is but one example.
Though we acknowledge that setting tolerances is an expensive and time-consuming process, FSIS needs a systematic and formal process to request FDA and EPA to set tolerances for residues that are deemed potentially hazardous. FSIS also needs procedures that specify what actions agency personnel are to take regarding the disposition of carcasses that contain potentially hazardous substances when there are no formal tolerances established by EPA or FDA.
The report contains 14 recommendations for improving interagency collaboration on setting residue limits, figuring out what to do with animal carcasses that contain contaminants (presumably, aside from selling them), and tracking where contaminated beef came from. It mentions feed lots and processors that have poor track records for the presence of residue, but aside from “incentives” and “disincentives” – such as more rigorous inspections – there seems to be no intention to punish the careless handling of meat for human consumption.
I guess the report is a step in the right direction, but I don’t find it very comforting. The best bet for us carnivores remains beef that is fed and finished on grass. No grains (which only add fat and raise the price of the cattle) and no feedlots. And this kind of meat is more expensive than the supermarket kind.
Sometimes we have to re-examine our values. While we wait for FSIS and the other agencies to get it together, if it was a matter of giving up beef entirely, or giving up cable to be able to afford beef you can trust, what would you do?
Posted on April 28th, 2010 by Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Filed under: Food Safety