Washington dumped some more bad news Friday afternoon when the USDA's Office of Inspector General issued a damning and unsettling report on the department's "National Residue Program for Cattle." It found gaping holes in the safety of American beef production, including residue of drugs, poisons and heavy metals in the meat we eat.

It's a stomach-turning, chilling read, even for a federal government document with the driest of titles: "Audit Report 24601-08-KC." And it's something that every omnivore in America should take the time to read.

"Based on our review, we found that the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues," the USDA's oversight office wrote. The audit revealed that USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), along with the FDA and EPA, "have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce."

Even worse, the federal government does not attempt to recall meat, "even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs," the audit said.

Last week, I wrote about my disappointment to discover that Obama's FDA had gone ahead with Bush-era proposed regulations to allow the feeding of beef products to cattle (a potential way to transmit "mad cow disease") in three ways: calve formula containing bovine blood, restaurant scraps in cattle feed, and the feeding of chicken manure to beef cattle - the manure contains spilled pieces of chicken feed, which can include beef byproducts.

And now we learn that some US beef is contaminated with heavy metals like copper and arsenic, antibiotics like Flunixin, penicillin, and Ivermectin, and a host of pesticides - all of which are used in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), better known as factory farms.

The findings read like something out of Upton Sinclair's century-old The Jungle, which documented the horrible working conditions - and government indifference - in the meat industry:
  • Out of 120 substances tested in beef, only one is a pesticide.
  • FDA has not set a "tolerance level" for many of the drugs, pesticides and heavy metals found in beef, including copper and arsenic, which can promote growth and inhibit certain parasites.
  • In 2008, a shipment of US beef was rejected by Mexican inspectors because it tested above the Mexican tolerance level for copper in beef. The food was sold and consumed in the US, where no levels are set.
  • The report lists five substances and their potential health consequences, including:
  1. Flunixin - Which can cause fecal blood, gastrointestinal erosions and ulcers and renal necrosis
  2. Penicillin - Life-threatening allergic reaction, serious nerve damage, severe colon inflammation, swelling of lips, tongue, or face, bleeding and diarrhea.
  3. Arsenic - Nonmalignant skin lesions, skin malignancy, internal malignancies, vascular diseases and hypertension.
  4. Copper - Hemolysis, jaundice, changes in lipid profile, oxidative stress, renal dysfunction and even death.
  5. Ivermectin - Neurotoxicity (e.g., altering normal activity of the nervous system which can eventually disrupt or even kill neurons, key cells that transmit and process signals from the brain).
  • Cooking meat destroys pathogens, but not residues, which heat may actually break down "into components that are more harmful to consumers."
  • Over 90 percent of all residues detected were in dairy cows and veal calves. Dairy cows are routinely ground into hamburger and veal calves are often fed antibiotic-laden, unmarketable "waste milk" from dairy cows undergoing treatment for infections.
  • FSIS does not recall meat adulterated with harmful residue, "even when it is aware that the meat has failed its laboratory tests."
  • Processing plants have sold beef contaminated with illegal levels of drugs that "could result in stomach, nerve, or skin problems for consumers" and the FSIS requested no recall.
  • FSIS reasoned that consumers "would not likely be 'acutely harmed' by consuming a single serving of this meat,'" making even a voluntary recall "difficult to force."
  • Testing methods for drugs in meat "are often antiquated and ineffective because they were approved when FDA first approved the drug."
  • Adopting new technologies is "difficult," and FDA "is not always willing, or able, to undertake the work."
  • Individual plants amassed as many as 211 violations and still were able to treat residue as a problem "not reasonably likely to occur."
  • Meat testing data are gathered on pen-and-paper tags affixed to carcasses, "a system that is slow, cumbersome and not always very legible," yet FSIS officials did not realize their technology was out-of-date.
That's the bad news. The really bad news. The good news is that the Inspector General offered 14 recommendations for fixing the worst problems and the FSIS has reportedly agreed to them. Generally speaking, they call on FSIS, EPA and FDA 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 one breathtaking sweep of bureaucratic understatement, the audit added this: "Since consumers have no easy way of protecting themselves against the residues of harmful substances in their food, it is important that the national residue program's controls be as robust as possible to prevent meat contaminated with harmful substances from reaching the kitchen table."

One can only hope that that USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, President Obama and even his wife Michelle, can have a serious powwow soon about implementing these changes quickly and efficiently.

One can also hope that similar audits will be issued soon on industrial-scale dairy, pork, poultry and egg production.

And speaking of Mrs. Obama, as I said this morning on Don Imus, she needs to do more than plant an organic garden if she really wants to protect the nutritional health of our children - she and her husband's administration need to take on Big Meat and win.

One modest suggestion: put a cow or two out to pasture on the White House South Lawn to provide the First Family with organic, sustainable milk, butter, cheese and yogurt to compliment their veggies. (Where DO they get their meat, milk and eggs, anyway?)

Another suggestion is to stop feeding chicken excrement to cows, which can spread "mad cow disease - a food-borne hazard with a low probability of occurring," the audit said:
FSIS officials explained that consuming certain portions of an animal affected with mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) could introduce the prions that cause new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Although a very small number of cases of mad cow disease have occurred in the United States in comparison to cows adulterated with chemical and drug residues, FSIS officials view the possibility of mad cow disease as an acute problem warranting recalls, as opposed to the chronic problem related to residue exposure.
In other words, transmission is possible, we just don't think it happens very often. Therefore, we will cross that nightmare bridge when we come to it.

About the author

David Kirby is author of Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment - St. Martin's Press.