USDA defends ‘rigorous drug residue testing program’ after Consumer Reports questions its efficacy

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

USDA defends ‘rigorous drug residue testing program’ in meat
The US Department of Agriculture is scrambling to reassure consumers and limit potential damage to the meat and poultry industries after it says a “sensational and fear-based infotainment” article ran in Consumer Reports Aug. 29 asking if banned drugs are in meat.

“When you see the USDA mark of inspection, you can have confidence that the products have been inspected and passed – meaning that every carcass has been inspected, samples have been taken by USDA inspectors and analyzed by scientists in a USDA laboratory, and the labeling is truthful and not misleading,”​ the agency’s Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food Safety Carmen Rottenberg wrote in an open letter to consumers Aug. 29.

She explained that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service “has a rigorous drug residue testing program”​ that tests for drug residues “at multiple points in the process, including in the final packages, before they are shipped to grocery stores.”

If a sample tests positive during a preliminary or screening test, it undergoes follow-up confirmatory testing, at which point if drug residues are found in any meat or poultry product, FSIS does not allow that product to be sold for human consumption, Rottenberg explains

Furthermore, she writes, “when testing for drug residues, we set the allowable levels to half of the acceptable level set by FDA and EPA”​ so that “FSIS’ method is even more stringent and more protective of public health.”

Consumer Reports questions if FSIS is doing enough to protect consumers

Her impassioned defense comes after Consumer Reports​ published online a story based on government data it obtained that “suggest that trace amounts of … banned or severely restricted drugs may appear in the US meat supply more often than was previously known.”

The article looks at how USDA and other agencies test animal protein for contaminants and how it investigates and enforces potential violations. It does so in part through the lens of data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request as part of an ongoing lawsuit against one of the nation’s largest chicken producers for allegedly making misleading claims about its chicken being ‘natural’ and free of antibiotics, according to the article.

But Rottenberg says the government data cited in the report are unconfirmed preliminary test results for samples taken from poultry that USDA “mistakenly released in response to a FOIA request”​ in March 2017.

“We corrected our mistake with the requestor. However, the unconfirmed sampling results continue to be passed around as accurate, truthful information,”​ but “they are not,”​ Rottenberg argues.

She adds that USDA told this to Consumer Reports but that the publication ran the story anyways in an attempt to scare Americans into eating less meat.

“Shame on Consumer Reports for attempting to advance a rhetoric that lacks scientific support or data, at the expense of American producers and the 9,000 food safety professionals who ensure the safety of meat and poultry in this country every day,”​ Rottenberg writes.

To Consumer Reports’ credit, it did acknowledge in the article that the data was preliminary, but it argues that its food safety scientists and other experts say the results are “meaningful and concerning​.”

The article argues the data raises questions “about more than just one company or class of drugs”​ and points out that hundreds of samples suggested the presence of drugs that should not be used in food animals or should be out of their system at the time of slaughter.

“Yet,”​ the Consumer Report article argues, “FSIS officials have taken little if any action based on the data.”

Rottenberg again underscores that the data cited in the story was only initial screening results, and she explains that if and when after complete testing “violative drug residues are found in any meat or poultry product, FSIS does not allow that product to be sold for human food.”

In addition, she notes, “if samples are violative, the company is not permitted to ship any of these meats or poultry products to the grocery store.”

Ultimately, Rottenberg says that by relying on preliminary data that does not tell the full story, the Consumer Reports article is confusing to consumers who are trying to make safe choices to feed their family.

“It’s important to me that consumers know they are purchasing safe, wholesome, inspected meat and poultry for their families,”​ Rottenberg concludes. “The products that you buy and put on your dinner table are the same products that I feed my own family. We have over 9,000 dedicated public servants working across the nation to protect the safety of your family and the food the eat.”

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