National Meat Residue Inspection Program Fails An Audit

Hamburgers.  Original by cyclonebill/Wikipedia.

Hamburgers. Original by cyclonebill/Wikipedia.

The Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) recently conducted an audit to evaluate how the nation’s meat residue program scored and assessed how the Food Safety And Inspection Service (“FSIS”), the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) and the Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) — the three agencies responsible for the national residue program — were coordinating to accomplish the program’s objections.  The program’s mission is to ensure that the  nation’s meat supply is not contaminated with residual chemicals such as heavy metals, pesticides and veterinary drugs.

Finding the status quo unacceptable, the OIG gave the national residue program a failing score thus spotlighting a rarely known defect in our beleaguered federal inspection regime, one that is already reeling from numerous egg and meat recalls.  Read below and decide for yourself whether its meat that you’ll be having at your next meal.

What Is The Nation’s Residue Program?

By way of background, the FSIS, an agency within United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”), is tasked with ensuring that the nation’s food supply is not contaminated by residual veterinary drugs, pesticides and heavy metals (such as copper and dioxin). This focus on chemical residues in the nation’s food supply is separate and apart from ensuring the safety of the food supply from contamination by microbiological pathogens, such a E. Coli, Salmonella and Listeria Monocytes.

The contaminating residue usually finds its way into the the food supply when producers bring animals to slaughter plants with these chemicals in their system.  The FSIS inspectors sample meat processed through slaughter plants for residue and compare the test results with the tolerance levels established by FDA and EPA.

FSIS administers the national residue program in collaboration with the EPA and the FDA. FDA is primarily responsible for approving drugs used by food-producing animals and establishing tolerances for residues of animal drugs in edible tissues. EPA is primarily responsible for establishing tolerances for residues of pesticides in food.

Essentially, FSIS collects, gathers, and tests for residue tissue samples from beef carcasses and organs but follows FDA and EPA guidance on tolerance levels for different substances.

The three agencies communicate and coordinate by means of the Surveillance Advisory Team (“SAT”), which meets annually, and the Interagency Residue Control Group (“IRCG”), which meets monthly.

Why Is The Nation’s Residue Program Ineffective?

It is ironic, if not portentous, that before the widely publicized summer meat and egg recalls, the OIG found that the national residue program failed to protect the food supply from harmful residue.  True, the residue program deals with chemical residues and not microbiological pathogens, but it also speaks volumes about the overall ability, or rather inability, of the federal agencies to minimize contamination of the nation’s food supply.

One of the problems the OIG noted in the nation’s residue program was the failure of FSIS, FDA and EPA to establish thresholds for many dangerous substances, such as copper and dioxins.  Additionally, the OIG found that FSIS failed to recall meat, even when tests demonstrated excessive levels of veterinary drugs.  Lastly, the OIG criticized the lack of coordination between the three agencies.  According to the OIG “these coordination problems have remained unresolved for over 25 years due to the informality of the SAT and the monthly IRCG meetings …” The OIG found that agency participants were not required to attend the meetings and no one agency had authority to ensure that necessary actions were taken to deal with disagreements.

Considering that approximately 97% of Americans are carnivores, this is a problem.   And while most people recognize that proper handling of meat is necessary to prevent illness from microbiological pathogens, such as E. Coli, Salmonella and Listeria Monocytes, and that such pathogens can be destroyed with proper kitchen hygiene and cooking, they are unfamiliar with residue contamination of meat.  Nor are consumers aware of how to cook meat contaminated with  residues.  In fact, no amount of cooking will destroy residues and, according to the OIG, in some cases, heat may actually break residues down into components that are more harmful to consumers.

The OIG found that to better meet the residue program’s objectives, the three agencies need to: 1) expand the substances they test for, 2) improve their methodology for sampling hazardous residues, 3) determine more efficient ways of approving newer methods of testing for drug residues, and 4) collaborate to set tolerances for additional residues.

In short, they need to test, monitor, share, and develop new testing methods more quickly and efficiently. And please, can someone be the responsible adult and start monitoring for effectiveness and enforcement!

Here are the problems noted by the OIG in detail.

1) Expanding Substances That Are Tested

It’s a catch-22: tolerance setting agencies complain that FSIS does not test the chemicals on the list they supply to FSIS, and FSIS argues that it will not waste it’s resources because EPA and FDA fail to set tolerance levels for many of those same chemicals for which testing is requested.

But limited resources argument did not pacify the OIG, which stated:

OIG acknowledges that FSIS’ laboratory testing resources are not unlimited, and that the agency must make decisions about what it will and will not test for. However, when there are additional substances that the three agencies determine to be of high risk, then the SAT needs to seek executive-level involvement from all three agencies to resolve differences, and, if necessary, to determine the best method for obtaining the needed testing resources to ensure that the highest priority substances are tested.

2) Improving Sampling Methodology

More than two decades after the inception of the residue program and many still question the validity of FSIS sampling number, which is set at 300 samples for each substance on its list.  The OIG found that while the annual SAT is the appropriate forum to resolve sampling methodology issues, it also found that the relevant personnel with appropriate qualifications and expertise do not always attend the SAT meetings.

3) Determining New Methods Of Testing for Drug Residue

According to the OIG, when FDA approves drugs, it only approves one method of testing for that drug’s presence. Drug companies submit the testing method as part of FDA’s approval process. Once approved, that method becomes the only official way that FSIS can confirm the residue’s presence in meat. This test, however, is not always the most efficient way of confirming the presence of residue, because it may have been developed years ago, or used techniques and equipment that are now obsolete.  FSIS is prohibited from using new testing methods for the presence of veterinary drugs, even though those methods may be quicker, more efficient, or even more accurate. To implement its resources more efficiently, FSIS personnel often contact FDA seeking assistance in demonstrating that new testing methods would yield equivalent results compared to the old method.

The OIG found that there is a significant time lag between FSIS’ request to FDA and the latter’s response and suggested that the agencies shape-up.

4) Collaborate To Set Tolerances For Additional Residues

The fact that EPA and FDA have not set tolerance levels for many pesticides, drugs and heavy metals is unacceptable since FSIS relies on these agencies to provide it with the information necessary to make a contamination determination. The OIG found that, unlike other countries, and other than poultry, there are no established tolerances for heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, copper, or arsenic in meat.

What this means is that we do not currently know what and how much of the chemical residue we are consuming.

Interestingly, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that tolerances should be established for “all ‘important substances’ or chemicals” in 1985 and 25 years later no such tolerances have been set.

In addition, there are no established tolerance levels for persistent organic pollutants, such as dioxin, fire retardants (polybrominated diphenylethers), and pesticides with canceled registrations.  Which means that should FSIS find these chemicals as a residue it will have no basis for acting to protect the U.S. food supply.

If these deficiencies were not enough, the OIG also noted other problems with the national residue program.  It found that FSIS needs to share its test results more rapidly and that the three agencies should involve more non-governmental advisers in the selection of residues to test. Furthermore, the OIG was also dissatisfied with FSIS’ handling of plants that process dairy cows and bob veals, as these plants are at much higher risk of having residue laden meat than plants processing beef cattle.

To make matters more embarrassing for FSIS, the post of the Under Secretary of the agency has been vacant since 2008 and has only recently been filled with the appointment of Dr. Elisabeth Hagen.

The upshot of the finding:  eat meat at your risk.