WASHINGTON (AP)--A criminal investigation is under way into the shipment of American beef last year that contained an illegal growth hormone, but there is no evidence that there has been any other use of the banned substance, federal officials said Feb. 2.
The Swiss government notified the United States last July that the banned carcinogen, diethylstilbestrol, or DES, had been found in two samples of U.S. beef that were supposed to be free of hormones.
The Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service have been conducting a joint investigation, said Beth Gaston, a spokeswoman for the USDA agency.
The hormone was banned in 1979, and the Agriculture Department stopped testing most beef for it in 1991 after failing to find the compound for several years. However, meat being shipped to the European Union, which bans the importation of hormone-treated beef, is tested for the chemical and it has not shown up, said Gaston. Switzerland is not a member of the EU.
"We do not believe it's being used," she said.
USDA, however, had already planned before the Swiss discovery to resume testing for DES this year as part of a plan to make sure it isn't being used, she said. The testing is expected to begin this spring.
The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 2 that the Swiss barred two U.S. exporters after the discovery: Farmland National Beef Packing Co. and Bruss Co., a subsidiary of IBP Inc. IBP and Farmland are two of the nation's biggest beef processors.
One tainted sample was traced back to Chicago-based Bruss and then to a Farmland National Beef plant in Liberal, Kan., said Sherlyn Manson, a spokeswoman for Farmland.
"We agree with USDA that it would be an aberration," she said. "We would find it highly unusual if anybody in the cattle business was using DES. It's been off the market for 20 years."
Critics said the Swiss discovery raised questions about the adequacy of the USDA testing program. "Obviously they don't have any evidence (of DES) because they're not looking for it," said Ben Cohen, senior staff attorney for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a public advocacy group.