FDA seeks court order against Michigan dairy
Government alleges cattle sold for human consumption contained illegal drug residues

Pennsylvania dairy farm agrees to stop improper medication
Owners agree to keep illegal drug residues out of animals sold for human consumption.

FDA takes action against New York dairy farmer
Proprietor sold animals with illegal drug residues in violation of federal law.

These headlines are real and they are just a few of the press announcements released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this year. In addition to these headlines, the USDA reported that there were 1,086 adulterated carcasses that contained drug residues in 2008. Of those, 879 were cattle, and 791 originated as dairy animals.

This is a serious issue with lasting implications for your business. Here is what’s at stake.

Drug residues by the numbers

In 2008, more than 34 million head of cattle were harvested in the U.S. for beef. Dairy cows accounted for just over 2.5 million head.

Although dairy is only a small percentage of the total beef production, it is the No. 1 violator when it comes to drug residues in slaughter cattle. According to 2008 data, drug residues were found in .003 percent of all cattle slaughtered — 0.00199 percent in beef cows and 0.03917 percent in dairy cows. That’s almost 20 times more violations in dairy cattle than beef.

While that number may seem insignificant, it’s an issue of credibility and confidence in the food supply, says Mike Apley, a veterinary clinical pharmacologist at Kansas State University. 

Any level of drug residues in the food supply, no matter how small, is a clear indicator that we are not doing our jobs and it conveys to consumers that we don’t care. It’s unacceptable, says Apley.

Loss of market for cull cows

The day could come when dairy farmers lose the ability to market cull cows.

Not only do dairy producers face the lost value of the market cow, they could lose the slaughter route for cull cows, says Dale Moore, director of veterinary medicine extension at Washington State University.

Slaughter plants handling dairy cows and bob veal were responsible for more than 90 percent of residue violations in 2008. During this time period, one plant amassed as many as 211 violations; another had 21 producers with multiple violations. Meanwhile, the national average for residue violations at all slaughter plants was two violations per plant. This strongly indicates that residues are a problem localized within slaughter plants that handle these classes of (dairy) animals, the USDA Office of Inspector General stated in its most recent National Residue Program for Cattle report.

The loss of this market would create a logistical and animal-welfare nightmare, in addition to a huge financial burden for dairy farms.

Human health consequences

Drug residues in meat can put human health at risk.

According to a recent report by the Office of Inspector General, flunixin meglumine can cause fecal blood, gastrointestinal erosions and ulcers, and kidney necrosis (death of tissue) in people.

Penicillin can cause allergic-reaction-anaphylaxis (difficulty in breathing), nerve damage, severe inflammation of the large intestine, swelling of the lips, tongue or face, bleeding and diarrhea. Ivermectin can cause nervous system toxicity.

The chance that any of these health consequences could result from a residue is extremely low, but the risk is still there. Any chance of problems is a cause for concern.

Elimination of antibiotics

Antibiotic use is currently under the public microscope due to public perceptions or misconceptions about resistant organisms.

Even though antibiotic resistance and drug residues are two separate issues, the general public doesn’t discern between the two, says Scott Hurd, senior epidemiologist with the College of Veterinary Medicine at Iowa State University and former USDA deputy undersecretary for food safety.

“Because the general public can’t separate resistance and residues, the issue of drug residues fuels the battle over antibiotic resistance,” says Hurd. As a result, drug residues could lead to the elimination of certain antibiotic uses, even though the two issues aren’t related.

Legislative consequences

Because of all these factors, the possibility exists to lose all antibiotics, period.

There are people who have decided that antibiotic use on-farm is a problem — and perception is reality, says Keith Sterner, veterinarian with Sterner Veterinary Clinic in Ionia, Mich.

Legislation currently under consideration in Washington, D.C., would withdraw the routine use of seven classes of antibiotics from food animal production unless animals are sick or unless drug companies can prove that their use does not harm human health. The Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 has the support of more than 350 organizations.

Some experts agree that this type of legislation would not improve food safety at all. However, any kind of drug residue only strengthens the argument that there is no control over drugs on-farm.

Meat and milk connection

Finally, there is another direct threat to your bottom-line. Dairies that sell a cow to slaughter with a drug residue lose the value of that market animal, but it does not currently affect their milk check. However, the milk market could be threatened in the future.

The potential is there to have milk recalled if drug residues are found in meat, says Keith Carlson, executive director of the Dairy Quality Center in Stratford, Iowa. “The issue of residues could shut the whole industry down if the FDA decided to take that attitude.”

This issue won’t go away unless we as an industry do something about it. The good part is that it’s not rocket science to prevent residues, says Apley.

For more information on how to prevent residues from occurring, read “Only you can stop drug residues."

Violators made public

The Food Safety Inspection Service has made public the list of suppliers of animals for slaughter who have received a residue violation. The online list includes name and addresses.

According to the USDA Office of Inspector General, the list is available so slaughter plants can refuse to purchase animals from these suppliers.

Unfortunately, plants cannot always identify sources of animals purchased through livestock auctions or sales facilities. However, Food Safety and Inspection Services may soon be cracking down on slaughter houses that cannot identify the original sources of all livestock presented for slaughter, which could necessitate additional residue testing for up to 100 percent of all animals presented from unknown sources.