CSPI Urges USDA to Determine if U.S. Beef is Tainted With the Hormone DES

U.S. Sold Beef with Cancer-Causing Hormone to Swiss

WASHINGTON - This week the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) urged the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to determine whether beef consumed in the United States is contaminated with a known human carcinogen, diethylstilbestrol (DES). CSPI recently learned from the Swiss government that beef from two U.S. exporters — the National Beef Packing Company of Liberal, Kansas and the Bruss Company of Chicago, Illinois — was banned in Switzerland because samples contained residues of DES or another hormone melengestrol. The use of DES is prohibited in food-producing animals in both Switzerland and the United States. Melengestrol is permitted in the U.S. but banned in Switzerland.

   In a letter sent January 31, 2000, to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, CSPI urged the USDA to determine how DES got into beef exported to Switzerland and asked that the results of the investigation be turned over to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution. CSPI also asked that testing resume for all other illegal drugs that might be administered to livestock, and that USDA implement a “trace back” system that could identify the farm or feedlot where an animal was raised. Today, the Wall Street Journal reported that the USDA is conducting an investigation to trace the contaminated beef sold to the Swiss from exporter to slaughterhouse to cattle feeder.

   “The discovery by the Swiss government of an illegal cancer-causing hormone in two of 26 samples of U.S. beef is distressing,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of CSPI. “Similar contamination could be present in beef consumed by Americans. U.S. consumers need immediate assurance that the beef they consume does not contain that drug.”

   As early as 1954, DES was used by U.S. farmers as a growth promoter in cattle and sheep. In 1979 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revoked approval for the use of DES in food-producing animals because it was found to cause cervical cancer in female children of women who consumed it. At that time, the FDA was unable to determine any safe level of DES for human consumption.

   On July 13, 1999, the Swiss Offices of Veterinary Medicine and of Public Health jointly announced that they had informed the U.S. government that DES had been detected in two samples of imported U.S. beef. The USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has not tested beef for DES since 1991. But because of the ongoing controversy over hormone use in U.S. cattle and because of the Swiss discovery of DES in U.S. beef, the U.S. Agriculture Secretary recently informed European Union (EU) officials that the FSIS plans to begin testing for DES in the spring of 2000.

   “The USDA recently established a ‘trace back’ system for testing beef exported to the EU. Americans deserve the same protection," said Jacobson. "USDA should develop a trace back system for all meat.”

   “The food industry likes to claim that our food supply is the safest in the world,” stated Bruce Silverglade, CSPI's director of legal affairs. “The use of an illegal cancer-causing drug and USDA's failure to uncover it demonstrates why that mantra is nonsense. It's sad that we have had to rely on health officials from another country to discover the problem.”