Most people know that antibiotics are part of the diet of conventionally raised livestock in the US and elsewhere to make them grow faster (feed is metabolized more efficiently) and prevent disease outbreaks in cramped conditions. But they’d be surprised at how many animals destined for the dinner table have drug residues that exceed legal limits. In the US, each week the Agriculture Department Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) finds dangerous antibiotic levels in animals raised for human food which include penicillin, neomycin, “sulfa” drugs and fluoroquinolones like Cipro. Many of the meat producers are repeat violators.
In June, FSIS found residues of enrofloxacin, whose label says “the effects of enrofloxacin on cattle or swine reproductive performance, pregnancy, and lactation have not been adequately determined” and “Animals intended for human consumption must not be slaughtered within 28 days from the last treatment.” Unlike bacteria which antibiotics are supposed to kill, “No amount of cooking will destroy [drug] residues” says a USDA Office of the Inspector General report.
You’d think with all the antibiotics in use, meat would be free of bacteria but bacteria are rife in conventionally grown meat including antibiotic-resistant bacteria also known as superbugs. The resistant MRSA staph bacterium (methicillin-resistant S. aureus) was detected in 70 percent of hogs on farms in a University of Iowa study. Pork in the US tested by Consumer Reports also contained MRSA and four other kinds of resistant bacteria.
Two serious strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella, called Salmonella Heidelberg and Salmonella Hadar, forced major recalls of turkey products from Jennie-O Turkey and Cargill and chicken products from Schreiber Processing Corporation in recent years. The resistant salmonella strains were so deadly, officials warned that disposed of meat should be in sealed garbage cans to protect wild animals. Yes, even wildlife is threatened by the factory farm-created scourges.
Cleaning products, yes cleaning products
As antibiotics are no longer doing the job, meat producers are getting desperate. They are trying radiation, gasses, nitrites and even sprays made of viruses called bacteriophages to quell germs.
In the US in 2012, there was a tremendous public backlash over meat scraps once earmarked for pet food but resurrected as “lean finely textured beef” (LFTB) also called Pink Slime. While the product looked like human intestines, what really turned the national stomach was that it was treated with puffs of ammonia to kill the bacterium E. coli. The public was also outraged that the pink slime was supplying the National School Lunch Program risking children’s health with taxpayer dollars. Its main producer, Beef Products, Inc., fought back and is trying to get back in business according to recent reports.
And another cleaning product used in meat production has been in the news: chlorine. Many US poultry processors cool their birds by immersion in chlorinated water-chiller baths provoking huge trade wars with the European Union and Russia in recent years.
There is another product Americans eat every day that the European Union doesn’t want: beef. The Scientific Committee On Veterinary Measures Relating To Public Health says the US’s hormone-heavy beef production poses “increased risks of breast cancer and prostate cancer,” citing cancer rates in countries that do and don’t eat US beef. Like the “fine print” in lean finely textured beef, Americans are blissfully unaware of the synthetic hormones zeranol, trenbolone acetate and melengestrol acetate that are part of the recipe for the production of US beef. Melengestrol acetate, which is not withdrawn in the days before slaughter, is 30 times more active than natural progesterone says the European Commission.
The powerful estrogenic chemical, zeranol, is associated with early puberty and breast cancers say groups dedicated to identifying and eliminating the “environmental causes” of cancer. “Consumption of beef derived from Zeranol-implanted cattle may be a risk factor for breast cancer,” agrees a recent article in the journal Anticancer Research. And trenbolone acetate, a synthetic androgen? It is on scientists’ radar because it masculinizes fish. Too bad USDA is not as cautious as the European Commission.
There is another way conventional factory farmers make animals grow faster besides antibiotics and hormones. The asthma-like drug ractopamine is used in 45 percent of US pigs, 30 percent of ration-fed cattle and a growing number of turkeys. Unlike most livestock drugs, ractopamine is not withdrawn before slaughter though its warning label says, “Individuals with cardiovascular disease should exercise special caution to avoid exposure. Not for use in humans. Keep out of the reach of children,” and recommends protective clothing, gloves, eyewear, and masks.
Cardiac stimulating drugs like ractopamine cause stress and hyperactivity in animals and they are “not appropriate because of the potential hazard for human and animal health,” wrote researchers in the journal Talanta. Could ractopamine, added to the food supply in 1997 with little public awareness, be contributing to skyrocketing rates of obesity and hyperactivity in children?
The charge that heavy metals lurk in US meat doesn’t come from food activists and consumer advocates; it comes from the USDA Office of the Inspector General. Its reports find high residues of copper, arsenic and other heavy metals and veterinary drugs in beef released for public consumption. Animals with violative levels of metals, anti-parasite vaccines and medicines were knowingly released into the human food supply by inspectors says a 2010 report. Pesticides are also a disturbing residue area with only one of 23 high-risk pesticides tested for, said the same Inspector General’s office.
Recently, the USDA FSIS residue report found residues of flunixin in animals for human consumption, a potent, “nonsteroidal, analgesic agent with anti-inflammatory and antipyretic activity” whose label warns, “Cattle must not be slaughtered for human consumption within 4 days.”
Industrialized, corporate “factory farms” are increasingly inspiring people to renounce meat, especially the younger generations. They are motivated by cruelty to animals, cruelty to workers and the huge environmental degradation such farming causes. But when considering all the unlabeled “ingredients” in conventionally produced meat, human health is another good reason to swear off meat.
Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.