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How Now, Toxic Cow?

druggie cows
Photo by Noel Nueburger/Digital Treatment by Don Button

The Chemical Cow: What you don't know can hurt you. Between 1989 and 1992, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture detected 21,439 pesticide-residue violations. The feds prosecuted only one of those cases. Also, of the 50 million pounds of antibiotics used in the U.S. every year, half is pumped into livestock.

Thanks to the feds, the meat you eat packs a chemical whollop

By Curt Guyette

Howard Lyman's laugh catches me by surprise. We're discussing the chemical contamination of America's meat supply--a subject not widely known for inspiring mirth--when I ask the former cattle rancher about government monitoring.

"The Department of Agriculture statistics indicate there are virtually no residues being detected in meat," I point out. "According to them, there's nothing at all to worry about. Do you think that's really the case?"

That's when Lyman starts to laugh. He just can't help himself--the notion that the government can be trusted when it comes to guaranteeing the safety of our meat is so absurd it tickles him silly.

Finally the laugh plays itself out. Lyman pauses to catch his breath, then turns serious. "If you're going to rely on the government to protect you from what's in the food you eat," he warns, "you're going to end up in Forest Lawn."

Where's the Beef?

America loves its meat. Assured by corporate agribusiness that beef is good food, prodded to believe that it's healthy to chow down on that other white meat, tempted by all those finger-lickin'-good images Madison Avenue keeps serving up, we chew into our Coneys, barbecued ribs and fried chicken legs at a ferocious rate.

Confident that we are buying a product that is safe and clean, each of us gobbles up an average of 180 pounds of beef, pork and poultry a year. And why not? It all carries those familiar purple "US Inspected and Passed" and blue "USDA Approved" stamps promising grade-A wholesomeness.

What the celebrity voiceovers and USDA reports don't publicize is the fact that there are hundreds of chemical additives and pollutants that can contaminate our meat with residues suspected of causing any number of human ailments, from a depressed immune system to reproductive damage and even to cancer. Antibiotics, hormones, contaminants: The cheeseburger you had for lunch today packs a chemical whopper and the feds don't care.

By its own admission, the USDA's monitoring is not designed to keep most chemically tainted meat from reaching grocery stores. The carcasses have already been sliced up and shipped to market by the time test results come in. Only a minute portion of the beef and poultry sold is ever tested anyway. Of the 7.1 billion birds, pigs and cows passing through federally inspected plants in 1993, only about 384,000 residue tests were performed. That works out to about one test for every 18,500 animals slaughtered.

The rationale is that strict enforcement will motivate producers to send a chemical-free product to market. The problem is that violators almost never receive anything more severe than a mild slap on the wrist, and even those are extremely rare.

According to the General Accounting Office, a total of 21,439 suspected residue violations were detected by the USDA between 1989 and 1992. Of that number, the Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for following through with enforcement, issued a total of 383 warning letters.

During the same four-year period, the FDA got tough exactly 15 times, producing a grand total of 12 injunctions, two citations and one prosecution.

"Really gets 'em shakin' in their boots, doesn't it," chides Lyman.

Anti-Meat Mecca

California, it turns out, is something of an epicenter in the battle over meat, not only because of its large amount of production but also because many of the West's most prominent anti-meat activists are here.

First, there is Santa Cruz County's John Robbins, author of the mega-best seller Diet for a New America. Other well-known West Coast writers include Santa Rosa's Dr. John McDougall, author of several health self-help bestsellers, and David Steinman, who penned Diet for a Poisoned Planet and The Safe Shopper's Bible.

Theirs is a potent message.

By calling for boycotts of contaminated foods and other toxic products, Steinman's Bible could alter consumer behavior, if widely read. The author echoed his message in a telephone interview, targeting the "I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener" ad campaign. "It seems to me they ought to stop their hypocrisy and clean up their hot dogs," Steinman says. "Oscar Mayer, being an enormously popular product, is exploiting kids at the expense of their health."

McDougall's books also advocate a meat- and milk-free diet. In an interview, he speaks of the prevalence of the bovine forms of leukemia and AIDS in cattle, and asks whether those and other diseases could be transferable to humans--a connection that Don Klingborg, a University of California at Davis professor, says does not exist, but which European scientists and politicians have debated the last two weeks in the wake of Britain's developing "mad cow" disease panic.

The meat business is fully aware of the power these activists' message could wield over the industry's profits. So it is not surprising that efforts have been made to silence activists who caution consumers about meat.

Take "food disparagement" legislation, such as that sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Bordonar. If this were enacted into law, any activist who badmouths an agricultural product could face punitive monetary damages if he or she did not have a "reliable" scientific study to back the claims.

Similar measures have already become law in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas.

Just whose voices would be muted if such a bill was passed?

Groups that could be muzzled include EarthSave International, the Cancer Prevention Coalition and a San Francisco-based group, the Humane Farming Association, which conducts its own muckraking investigations. Most recently, the HFA took public the scandal regarding the black market in a dangerous, illegal growth hormone, clenbuterol.

The Hormone Mafia

A Steroid-like substance that promotes rapid growth in animals, clenbuterol has nasty side effects when ingested by humans. Hundreds of Europeans who ate meat tainted with the drug have been hospitalized with ailments ranging from heart palpitations to headaches.

The black market in hormones and antibiotics has already gotten a lot of publicity in Europe, thanks to the Belgian government's war on a "hormone Mafia"--made up of pharmaceutical companies, feed suppliers and livestock producers--that engages in clenbuterol trafficking. In incidents in Belgium allegedly related to this drug-pushing syndicate, a veterinarian was killed and five meat inspectors were threatened.

As far back as 1989, the Food and Drug Administration was tipped that clenbuterol was being used to beef up veal calves in the US. However, it wasn't the food protection agencies that acted, but rather U.S. Customs. Tipped off that the illegal drug was being smuggled in from Canada, agents raided a major Wisconsin feed company in 1994, seizing 50,000 pounds of feed allegedly containing clenbuterol and two other unapproved drugs. The probe spread quickly, reaching into five different states.

Still, no agency warned the public. Finally, the Humane Farming Association learned about the bust from a government source who feared no action would be taken against the accused violators. The tip helped HFA investigator Gail Eisnitz uncover details of the alleged smuggling operation and the sale of clenbuterol-laced feed. It wasn't until she handed the information over to the Los Angeles Times that the American public learned of the threat.

In documents Eisnitz obtained, federal investigators rationalized their failure to warn consumers: "Premature public disclosure of this investigation may cause harm to subjects of the investigation and to the public interest."

While the feds did nothing, consumers were kept blissfully ignorant of the potential danger and were free to order up that tasty veal scallopine without the burden of worry.

In 1994, five years after the problem was brought to the feds' attention by a livestock producer who noticed that his new feed made calves 50 pounds bigger, excitable and prone to suddenly going into fits and dropping dead, the USDA finally conducted tests on about 300 calves and found no taint of clenbuterol. This was considered enough evidence for federal bureaucrats and industry officials to assure the public that veal was safe. However, the HFA conducted tests of its own, finding that 26 of 71 urine samples collected from slaughterhouses tested positive for clenbuterol.

Last December, based on the work of Eisnitz and the U.S. Customs Service, the federal Department of Justice issued an indictment to a major Wisconsin-based agricultural supplier, Vitek Supply Corp. (a subsidiary of a Netherlands-based company), for allegedly trafficking in clenbuterol-boosted feed. According to the Justice Department's indictment of Vitek, about 1.7 million pounds of clenbuterol-laced feed additive were distributed by the firm nationwide.

"This goes along with everything else I've ever seen at the USDA," Eisnitz says. "They attempt to turn a blind eye toward everything they can, because they're more interested in protecting the image of the industry they're supposed to be regulating than they are in protecting the consumer."

When Cows Do Drugs

Don't look to the FDA or the USDA to tell you what's in your meat, says Lyman, who used to run a 7,000-head herd in Montana.

Lyman gave up ranching in 1979 after his brother died of a rare form of Hodgkin's disease while still in his 30s, and before Lyman himself learned of a tumor growing inside his spinal column. He attributes his brother's death and his tumor to overexposure to pesticides used in cattle ranching.

"We went through that stuff like soda pop," he recalls, describing what is nothing less than a full-fledged chemical assault on the animals he raised--antibiotics in their feed, pesticides in their food and water, hormone implants under their ears. And that's on an average day. These chemically assisted farming techniques are the norm for big farmers who depend on chemicals to grow "healthy," meaty animals for slaughter.

"Let's start with the antibiotics," says Lyman, who eventually sold his ranch and became an activist for small farmers and safe food. "Antibiotics were mixed in with the feed that cattle would eat daily."

When cattle ranchers, chicken producers and hog farmers feed antibiotics to their animals, they do it not to cure a disease already present, but to prevent disease from occurring. Modern corporate farming entails raising animals in overcrowded conditions, and antibiotics reduce the possibility that disease will rampage through an entire herd or flock.

Antibiotics are also used because, for reasons not fully understood, they promote growth. As a result, an estimated 25 million pounds of antibiotics are used on farm animals each year. According to one report, farm animals receive 30 times more antibiotics than people do.

The drugs are cheap and plentiful, boosting production and keeping the cost to consumers down. But there's still a price to be paid for this massive dosing.

One concern is that the antibiotic residues in meat, milk and commercially raised fish will help increase human resistance to the same drugs, just as it does to the animals. "We'd change the antibiotic being used every 30 days because they'd stop working," reveals Lyman, now head of the group Eating with Conscience.

Research also has shown that overuse of antibiotics produces drug-resistant "super" microbes that can transfer directly to humans, a situation that's setting off alarms throughout the scientific community. Already, an estimated 500 Americans die annually from the bacteria on meat, and the threat continues to grow.

Despite these dangers the USDA only tests for a handful of antibiotics, although thousands of potentially dangerous drugs are on the market, leaving meat producers largely free to illegally medicate livestock without fear of getting caught.

"Farmers aren't stupid," Lyman says. "If they're going to overuse antibiotics, do you think they're going to do it with those that are being tested for? It's like having a fence that's a quarter-mile long but open at both ends. Cattle aren't going to keep butting into that fence. They're going to go around it."

Loose Meat Sandwich

The historically boosterish USDA is caught today between a Republican Congress hell-bent on cutting budgets and deregulating every possible industry and a Clinton administration that's notoriously cozy with certain multimillionaire chicken farmers. As a result, the federal meat inspection system is being crippled.

This fiscal year, the Agriculture Department's food safety and inspection service received $50 million less than it said it needed. As a result of a hiring freeze and early retirement programs, staffing is at critically low levels.

There were 10,000 meat inspectors in 1979, according to the union that represents them. Today, the union says, there are just 6,250 inspectors on the job in slaughterhouses and processing plants. The USDA disputes those figures, contending the situation is not as dire as inspectors claim.

But whatever numbers are being used, the situation has deteriorated to the point where even slaughterhouses and packing plants are complaining. As a beef industry newsletter just pointed out, industry officials recently wrote Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to warn that staffing shortages are creating a "severe hardship to USDA inspection systems and plant operations."

According to Dan Carney, head of the national inspectors' union, the result is that the remaining poultry inspectors, who are already overworked, have an even heavier load. As it is now in plants across the nation, three inspectors must examine birds moving down the line at a rate of 91 per minute.

Under a trial program in place at three plants, the same number of inspectors work a line that zips the birds through at a rate of 140 per minute. Carney contends the situation is tantamount to eliminating inspections altogether. "The way things are now," he says, "producers are pretty much on an honor system."

You Are What Eats You

The government's failure to detect chemical residues in meat and poultry could add a new grim meaning to the adage "you are what you eat."

In the early '80s, there was an alarming epidemic of premature puberty among children in Puerto Rico. Five-year-olds were growing pubic hair. Girls a year old developed breasts, as did young boys. After seeing the problem grow over the course of several years, local health officials blamed hormone additives in milk and meat, particularly in chicken.

When these foods were eliminated from children's diets, the symptoms began to reverse themselves. By the time the FDA launched an investigation--if you can call testing 17 food samples on an island of 3.5 million people an investigation--frightened meat producers apparently had cut back on hormone additives.

Still, the incident underscored the debate over what constitutes a safe level of added hormones. "Hormone growth implants are not a health concern when used properly," Colorado State University researcher Gary Smith told Environmental Health magazine last year.

That statement assumes proper use is being adhered to. Yet in 1986, as many as half of all cattle tested in feedlots with as many as 600 animals were found to have hormones illegally implanted in the animals' muscles. "This practice results in very high residues in meat, which even the FDA has admitted could produce 'adverse effects,' " contends Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health. The implants are supposed to be lodged only in ear skin, which won't be eaten.

An accurate picture of hormone use is almost impossible to get since the USDA does virtually no testing to detect levels present in meat. That worries Epstein. "Left unanswered," writes Epstein in The Politics of Cancer, "is whether such chronic and uncontrolled estrogen dosages are involved in increasing cancer rates (now striking one in three Americans), particularly the alarming 50 percent increase in the incidence of breast cancer since 1965."

Epstein is a leading proponent of the theory that environmental factors are a leading cause of cancer. At the other end of the scientific spectrum are the experts who dismiss entirely the notion that pesticides in foods are dangerous. The debate ranges from the emotional to the molecular, with scientists arguing about the potential effects of residues measured in nanograms and parts per million.

"This whole pesticide thing is a non-story," claims Dr. Joe Rosen, a food safety specialist at Rutgers University. Rosen calculates that pesticides acquired through food pose a risk equivalent to smoking perhaps two cigarettes a year.

A number of studies link chemical consumption and disease. The evidence regarding pesticide levels and breast cancer, for instance, is particularly strong. But in the world of epidemiology, concrete proof is rare.

Safe Meat or None

The meat industry's muscle and the feds' willingness to protect the industry have left consumers to their own devices to find out both what's in their meat and what the longterm effects will be on their health. On their side are activists who think that, at the very least, consumers have a basic right to know what's in their food.

In recent months, consumer activist Ralph Nader and a coalition headed by Epstein have begun campaigning for food labels listing pesticides and antibiotics as well as calories and fat.

Meanwhile, Epstein and Steinman recently published Safe Shopper's Bible and went on to launch the Cancer Prevention Coalition. The groups' first goal is to alert consumers about the potential dangers lurking in food, cosmetics and household products.

To that end, they recently released a "Dirty Dozen" list of products. At the top of that list is hot dogs. In the No. 2 spot is milk.

"Right now we have a four-year plan to get a legislative package in place, but who knows how long it will actually take," explains the coalition's Keith Ashdown. "Look what we're up against. With all the special-interest money that's working against us, we are going to need large numbers of people on our side to get things changed.

"But that's going to take time to build, " Ashdown adds.

If anything, what the government is doing now will only help inspire such support. When asked what actions had been taken in response to the 1994 GAO report that found the drug testing program rife with problems, the USDA faxed over details of its "intensified market hog testing" program.

This "intensified" program will actually eliminate specialized testing for antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals at 21 smaller slaughterhouses, where a total of about
2 million pigs a year are killed.

At larger plants, testing will be reduced from seven days per week to one. Epstein refers to it as a "near-total regulatory anarchy" surrounding meat inspection.

It's a view Howard Lyman shares. The way he sees it, consumers have to become personally involved in the issue of food safety.

"You can't rely on the government to protect you," he contends. "You're going to have to look out for yourself." This time Lyman's not laughing.

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From the March 28-April 3, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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