As the head of a public health agency that ensures the safety of meat and poultry, food safety is my number one priority. Americans depend on us to keep their food safe. When you see the USDA mark of inspection, you can have confidence that the products have been inspected and passed – meaning that every carcass has been inspected, samples have been taken by USDA inspectors and analyzed by scientists in a USDA laboratory, and the labeling is truthful and not misleading.
In recent years, consumers have expressed a greater interest in knowing where their food comes from, and everything associated with that process from farm to fork. As a public health regulatory agency, this movement toward greater transparency about the products we regulate is an important step for consumers to understand how food safety is achieved. Not only have we moved to proactively make otherwise non-public data available on our website, but we routinely release data in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for datasets requested by outside organizations.
On March 3, 2017, in our haste to be transparent and responsive, we mistakenly released in response to a FOIA request, unconfirmed, preliminary test results for samples taken from poultry. We corrected our mistake with the requestor. However, the unconfirmed sampling results continue to be passed around as accurate, truthful information – they are not.
You may have seen a Consumer Reports story claiming that the poultry and meat you purchase in the grocery store and feed your families could contain harmful drug residues. That is not true. This story is sensational and fear-based infotainment aimed at confusing shoppers with pseudoscience and scare tactics. Consumer Reports admits in their closing paragraph that the real agenda behind this piece is to convince Americans to eat less meat. Shame on Consumer Reports for attempting to advance a rhetoric that lacks scientific support or data, at the expense of American producers and the 9,000 food safety professionals who ensure the safety of meat and poultry in this country every day.
USDA has been ensuring the safety of meat and poultry since 1906, with inspectors, scientists, and experts making food safety determinations daily. FSIS has a rigorous drug residue testing program and has been conducting drug residue testing since 1958. When FSIS tests for residues, USDA inspectors collect meat and poultry samples at multiple points in the process, including in the final packages, before they are shipped to grocery stores. The samples are sent to FSIS labs, where we test for more than 200 veterinary drug and chemical residues as well as numerous harmful pathogens. Our intensive testing process includes a preliminary test, or screening test, followed, when positive, by confirmatory testing. The screening instrument very often produces a response, which is why the agency completes the screening process, using controls and other evidence, to determine if the responses are confirmed and reproducible. The results of this initial screen, without the further testing layers, are the data that was released in error. FSIS scientists spoke with Consumer Reports multiple times to explain this information, but Consumer Reports scientists failed to evaluate all the scientific results and methods objectively.
FSIS performed the complete screening and testing process on all the samples represented. The final, confirmed and validated test results show are that there were no drug residues in the chicken. If violative drug residues are found in any meat or poultry product, FSIS does not allow that product to be sold for human food.
In fact, all meat and poultry products that are being tested for drug residues are not allowed to leave the company’s control until FSIS labs determine that the product is safe and wholesome. If samples are violative, the company is not permitted to ship any of these meat and poultry products to the grocery store.
When testing for drug residues, we set the allowable levels to half of the acceptable level set by FDA and EPA. FSIS also takes additional steps to quantify drug residues in additional tissues, like the kidney and liver, from the same animal and shares all the data with FDA, the agency that regulates and tracks drug and antibiotic use on farms and in live animals. The Consumer Reports story is misleading to consumers about FSIS’ testing method. In fact, by setting the allowable level to half of the acceptable level set by FDA and EPA, FSIS’ method is even more stringent and more protective of public health.
Every year, we post all the results on our website that show the drug residues FSIS finds by sampling meat and poultry. For example, in FY2016 results, we found drug residues in beef that the story highlights as a failure of the sampling program. However, FSIS’ program is designed to identify positives to prevent the meat from going to your grocery store. This means the program works – we detect it and we remove it.
Two of the consulting scientists featured in the Consumer Reports story were previously in senior management roles at FSIS. Consumer Reports acknowledges that its “food safety experts” don’t think the concerns raised in this investigation mean you should give up or cut back on meat. Of course they don’t, because they fully understand the important food safety work that we do at FSIS to protect public health. The unfounded accusations in the Consumer Reports article attempt to confuse consumers as they try to make healthy and safe choices to feed their family.
We will continue to share data and results with the public and because we are committed to transparency and want consumers to be confident that when we find violative drug residues, we take action, and never allow that product to be sold to consumers. I also realize that as we continue to share more testing results on our website, there will be more scrutiny. We welcome it and are willing to continue to engage with others to ensure food safety.
It’s important to me that consumers know they are purchasing safe, wholesome, inspected meat and poultry for their families. The products that you buy and put on your dinner table are the same products that I feed my own family. We have over 9,000 dedicated public servants working across the nation to protect the safety of your family and the food they eat. Americans are privileged to have the safest food supply in the world and at USDA we work tirelessly to uphold that standard.