Pew study finds USDA chemical testing of meat inadequate

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, March 9, 2016 - Pew Charitable Trusts released a scathing report Tuesday on a USDA system designed to identify environmental contaminants, veterinary drugs, and pesticides in livestock and poultry that produce food for human consumption.

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The report argued that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), the agency charged with running USDA's National Residue Program and ensuring domestic and imported meat and poultry products are free of biological and chemical contaminants, has been neglecting to test these animal products for some contaminants that actually pose the greatest risk to humans.

“Some compounds that experts agree pose a significant public health hazard, such as dioxins and certain heavy metals, are not tested for routinely, while others posing little risk are regularly included in sampling plans,” the report said.

What's more, the analysis argued, “in many cases, the program offers no justification for decisions to exclude drugs such as dexamethasone and dipyrone, which scored higher in the NRP's published risk assessment than several monitored compounds.”

The report also noted that decisions “to include some compounds, such as avermectins, are based at least in part on studies that are outdated or were not peer-reviewed,” it said.

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Pew's analysis argued there were “major deficiencies” in how the program documents and reports data, and recommended that FSIS make data reporting and decision-making processes more transparent. The report also recommended the following:

  • Consistently apply the NRP's public health-based risk criteria to all compounds considered for monitoring, provide specific justifications and regularly revisit decisions to monitor compounds of comparably lower and higher public health risk.
  • Clearly acknowledge and explain when a compound is included in the NRP for reasons other than direct public health risks, such as enforcing legal requirements for pesticide use.
  • Monitor compounds that pose an important public health risk even if such action presents regulatory or technological challenges.
  • For compounds of important public health risk but without established tolerance levels from the FDA or EPA, consider using applicable guidelines, such as the Codex Alimentarius' maximum residue limits.
  • Adopt standards for strength of scientific evidence and minimum data quality.
  • Develop a system to routinely incorporate new scientific evidence and evaluations of relevant technological advancements.
  • Include compounds that the NRP determines pose an emerging and important public health threat using tools such as rapid risk assessments or expert panels, and clearly document the assessment of new and emerging risks. Base decisions on the most rigorous scientific analysis available and re-evaluate them as more data become available.

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