By Philip Brasher
AP Farm Writer
WASHINGTON (AP)--The Clinton Administration is preparing another in a series of food-safety protections, a ban on the sale of meat from animals in which excessive drug residue has been found.
Under current rules, packers can throw out the part of an animal that is tested for drug residue--typically the liver or kidney--and sell the rest. The new policy, which could be made final as early as next month, would require that the entire carcass be destroyed.
"The violation rates are very, very low," said Karen Hulebak, chief scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "We're talking about a small number of animals in the scheme of all the animals slaughtered in this country."
USDA officials said the policy would apply to all livestock but it would primarily affect slaughtered dairy cows, the source of about 40% of the nation's hamburger meat.
The intent is to bring USDA procedures into line with the Food and Drug Administration's policy on chemical residues in food. FDA sets the limits, or tolerances, for drug residues in food animals.
The department does not believe that unsafe meat is reaching consumers, Hulebak said this week.
About 0.2% of the cattle tested in 1997 had drug residues in excess of FDA limits, or about 12,400 of the 6.2 million cattle slaughtered that year. Animals are tested for more than 50 different compounds, including a variety of antibiotics.
The administration has proposed or is working on several regulations intended to provide consumers with new protections. Among other things, it is setting new testing requirements for listeria, a pathogen in processed meats, and has proposed expanding the nutrition labels on processed foods to include artery-clogging trans fats.
USDA also is expected soon to announce new testing requirements in beef plants for the deadly bacteria E. coli O157:H7.
Mike Hanson, a food safety specialist with Consumers Union, said the new policy on drug residues would be a "step forward in increasing the safety of the food supply."
Consumer advocacy groups contend that livestock producers are giving excessive amounts of hormones, antibiotics and other drugs to their animals. There is concern among scientists, for example, that harmful bacteria develop resistance to antibiotics when they are exposed to the drugs in animals and become more of a threat to humans.
There also is evidence that certain human illnesses and allergic reactions are due to drug residues in meat.
Industry officials say the new policy would have a significant economic impact on meatpackers.
Profit margins in the packing industry are so thin that slaughterhouses process or resell every bit of the cattle they kill, including the blood, bones and even the intestinal contents.
"This would be a pretty dramatic shift," Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, said of the proposal. Packers can't control the use of drugs in animals they buy, she said.
USDA does not test every animal for drugs, but instead conducts a monitoring program for a list of drugs that changes each year, depending on what chemicals officials think they need to watch for.
Tests also are at packing plants on animals that USDA veterinarians suspect may have excessive amounts of drugs.
Dairy cattle, because they are slaughtered at an older age than cattle raised for beef and accumulate more drug residue in their systems, are tested the most frequently.
When drug residues in the liver or kidney exceed FDA tolerances, tests are also done on the meat. However, FDA has not set tolerances in meat for most drugs, so there is no established limit for USDA officials to use in determining whether the meat is safe.
Under the department's current policy, the meat can be cleared for sale if the residue in the meat does not exceed the limits set for the liver and kidney.