There may be unsafe drug residues in your beef, pork, chicken and turkey, but the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), doesn’t think you should be alarmed.
Safety scientists at Consumer Reports disagree and suggest the residues could potentially be dangerous — and at the very least consumers should be alerted when residues are found and the potential risks should be investigated. The residues stem from nearly 6,000 samples of meat from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), taken from October 2015 to September 2016.
“I’m floored by these results,” Andrew Gunther, executive director of sustainable farming nonprofit A Greener World, told Consumer Reports. “These are potentially very dangerous drugs, appearing in more samples and at higher levels than I would have ever expected.”1
FSIS Downplays Drug Residues, Uses Inadequate Safety Cut-Offs
FSIS uses cutoff levels for drug residues in meat that are higher than those recommended by Consumer Reports, other scientists and other government agencies. Known formally as the minimum level of applicability (MLA), FSIS set higher cutoff limits partly in response to updated testing equipment that is able to detect lower amounts of potentially dangerous substances.
Consumer Reports quoted Dr. Robert Poppenga, a professor of veterinary toxicology at the California Animal Health & Food Safety Lab at the University of California, Davis, who has worked with the FSIS:2
“Analytical equipment has gotten so sensitive that it’s possible to detect things that you wouldn’t have 20 years ago … [the MLA gives] authorities some flexibility, and if they do find something at a very, very low level, they don’t necessarily have to take regulatory action.”
The high safety thresholds set by FSIS are inconsistent even with those set by other U.S. government agencies. For instance, the FSIS regulatory cutoff for chloramphenicol, an antibiotic, in meat is 3 parts per billion (ppb), but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has blocked imports of shrimp that contained the drug at levels of 0.3 ppb.3
Another drug, the anti-inflammatory phenylbutazone, has safety cutoffs ranging from 1 to 11 ppb in Europe, in contrast to the FSIS’ much more generous limit of 50 ppb.4 For reasons unknown, FSIS does not use the limit of quantitation (LOQ), which is the lowest amount of a substance that can be reliably measured. LOQ is a widely accepted scientific standard.
Dr. Ronald Baynes, veterinary and director of the Center for Chemical Toxicology Research and Pharmacokinetics at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, told Consumer Reports, “I find that very disturbing that [the FSIS has] different standards.”5
In their review of the data, Consumer Reports used their own more conservative safety cutoffs, which were a “best estimate” based on interviews with experts and reviews of government documents.
What Drugs Were Found in US Meat?
Consumer Reports, which obtained the FSIS data via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made by food safety organizations, reported that hundreds of the meat samples tested positive for drugs that are supposed to be banned or restricted in U.S. meat. This included:
• Chloramphenicol — This antibiotic is associated with several toxic effects in humans, including aplastic anemia (an inability to produce new blood cells, basically, a fatal form of anemia), and this effect is not dose dependent.
Because of its severe health risks to humans, chloramphenicol is only permitted for use in dogs and cats, yet the drug was found in beef, chicken, pork and turkey samples. The highest levels were found in beef.
In all, 81 of 2,865 beef samples contained this dangerous drug, and 12 of them contained levels above the FSIS cutoff (which again is 10 times higher than the FDA’s cutoff for imported foods). Pork, followed by chicken, had the next-highest levels.
• Phenylbutazone — This anti-inflammatory pain reliever is also known to cause aplastic anemia in humans, along with other blood disorders and cancer. Twenty-four of 1,448 pork samples contained the drug; one was above the FSIS cutoff.
• Ketamine — Ketamine is a hallucinogenic anesthetic, used experimentally as an antidepressant. Of 4,313 beef and pork samples combined, 225 had ketamine above the threshold suggested by Consumer Reports, while 15 were above the FSIS cutoff.
• Nitroimidazole — An antifungal drug with suspected carcinogenic activity, of 5,756 beef, pork and poultry samples, 667 contained the drug in levels above the CR threshold while 136 were above the FSIS cutoff.
As for how the drugs are winding up in meat, Consumer Reports suggested a number of possible routes of entry or exposure, including:
- Improper use, such as giving too high a dose or administering the drug too close to slaughter
- Counterfeit drugs
- Contaminated feed
- Intentional misuse
More Deaths Are Attributed to Poultry Than Any Other Food
Poultry products are surprisingly likely to be contaminated with bacteria that can make you sick, including salmonella. FSIS data from October 2017 to October 2018 detected salmonella in poultry from producers including Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson Foods, Foster Farms and many others, at establishments located across the U.S., from Iowa to Arkansas to New York and California.6
A Consumer Reports study of chicken in the U.S. revealed similarly dangerous conditions after testing 252 samples from CAFO chickens and 64 brands of antibiotic-free chicken (including 24 organic samples). The study revealed:7
- All the brands tested (Perdue, Pilgrim’s, Sanderson Farms and Tyson) contained “worrisome amounts” of bacteria
- More than half the samples were contaminated with fecal contaminants, including enterococcus and E. coli
- The most common bacterium was enterococcus, found in nearly 80 percent of the samples, followed by E. coli in 64 percent, campylobacter in 43 percent, klebsiella pneumoniae in 14 percent, salmonella in 11 percent and staphylococcus aureus in 9 percent
- Nearly half the samples tested positive for at least one multidrug-resistant bacterium and 11.5 percent contained two or more
The prevalence of pathogens in poultry is so high that it’s incredibly easy to be sickened by such products, even if you don’t eat the meat. As reported by Consumer Reports:8
“According to James R. Johnson, M.D., a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and international medicine at the University of Minnesota, you don’t have to ingest a lot of bacteria to become sick.
It’s possible that simply touching the plastic wrapping on the outside of chicken packages might expose you to harmful bacteria, Johnson says. A 2010 study led by CDC scientists found that 13 percent of children younger than 3 were potentially exposed to raw meat or poultry products while riding in a grocery store shopping cart.9“
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) statistics, there were 5,760 reported foodborne outbreaks between 2009 and 2015, resulting in 100,939 illnesses, 5,699 hospitalizations and 145 deaths. Of these, chicken was responsible for the most outbreak-associated illnesses — 3,114 illnesses in total (12 percent).10
What’s more, in an analysis of outbreaks from 1998 through 2008, the CDC revealed that “more deaths were attributed to poultry than to any other commodity.”11 Consumer Reports even stated, “It’s unrealistic to expect that the uncooked chicken you buy won’t contain any potentially harmful bacteria.”12
Most UTIs Are Caused by CAFO Poultry
While many strains of E. coli live in your intestines, and can end up causing a urinary tract infection (UTI) if introduced to your urinary tract via your own feces or during sexual intercourse, other strains of E. coli come from external sources like contaminated food. UTIs may actually be a foodborne illness caused by eating chicken contaminated with certain strains of E. coli.
In a study involving nearly 2,500 chicken, pork and turkey samples purchased from large retail stores in Flagstaff, Arizona, nearly 80 percent were found to contain E. coli.13 The researchers also tested blood and urine samples from people who visited a major medical center in the area, finding E. coli in about 70 percent of those diagnosed with a UTI.
In particular, a strain of E. coli known as E. coli ST131 showed up in both the meat samples, particularly poultry, and the human UTI samples. Most of the E. coli in the poultry was a variety known as ST131-H22, which is known to thrive in birds and was also found in the human UTI samples.
“Our results suggest that one ST131 sublineage — ST131-H22 — has become established in poultry populations around the world and that meat may serve as a vehicle for human exposure and infection,” the researchers noted, adding that this E. coli lineage is just one of many that may be transmitted from poultry and other meat sources to people.
Leave Raw CAFO Poultry in the Store
Chicken is portrayed as one of the healthiest protein sources, but in addition to the contamination issues you may be surprised to learn that CAFO chicken also has a weak nutritional profile compared to other protein sources, including pasture-raised chicken.
The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association (APPPA) published a study that compared the nutrition of chickens fed on pasture with the USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference values for CAFO chicken, for example. The pasture-raised chickens were higher in vitamins D3 and E and had an average omega-3-to-6 ratio of 1-to-5, compared to the USDA’s value of 1-to-15.14
The average American buys 83 pounds of poultry every year, but you’re probably better off leaving it at the supermarket.15 Pasture-raised poultry is not likely to pose the same risks of contamination, as a large part of the problem stems from the dire living conditions on CAFOs. Consumer Reports noted:16
“According to the public-health expert J. Glenn Morris Jr., M.D., director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, it’s perfectly common for a chicken’s intestinal tract to carry salmonella, campylobacter, or both, and when they’re contained there, they don’t harm the animal.
… [but] if a chicken living in cramped conditions regularly comes into contact with feces, the bacteria can cling to its skin and make their way onto your dinner plate.”
Eat Eggs Instead of CAFO Chicken
In contrast to CAFO chicken meat, eggs, particularly organic pastured varieties, are one of the best protein sources you can eat. They’re a valuable source of vitamins (A, D, E and K), omega-3 fats and antioxidants, as well as choline.
Eggs are also rich in the antioxidant carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are beneficial for vision health. And egg yolks are an excellent source of healthy fat and protein, while providing you with vitamins that many Americans are lacking. Eating egg yolks may even be an ideal way to resolve other common nutrient deficiencies beyond choline, including vitamins A, E and B6, copper, calcium and folate.17
The Cornucopia Institute released an egg report and scorecard, which ranks egg producers according to 28 organic criteria. It can help you to make a more educated choice if you’re buying eggs at the supermarket. If you choose to eat chicken, finding a local grass fed farmer raising chickens on pasture is the safest, and healthiest, route to go.