Letter to the Honorable Dan Glickman

January 31, 2000

The Honorable Dan Glickman
Secretary of Agriculture
Room 200-A
Jamie L. Whitten Building
Independence Avenue and 14th Street, SW
Washington, D.C. 20250

Dear Secretary Glickman:

   On behalf of our nearly one million members, I write to express our serious concern about the adequacy of the Department's program to ensure that meat and poultry do not contain diethylstilbestrol (“DES”) and other banned drugs.

   Beginning in 1954, DES was used as a growth promoter in cattle and sheep. In 1979 the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) revoked its approval for the use of DES in food- producing animals because new evidence revealed its carcinogenic effects on female children of pregnant women who consume DES. (The FDA still allows the use of DES to treat ill non-food animals.)

   The Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) is responsible for testing meat and poultry for the presence of various compounds, including DES. In July 1998 the FSIS stated in the Preface to its National Residue Program Plan 1998 (“the Plan”) that it was using “modern risk assessment principles” to decide for which compounds it should test. The FSIS explained that “many compounds, otherwise of toxicological concern, are not included in the 1998 plan because testing in previous years produced evidence that these compounds are not present in meat foods.” An Appendix Table to the Plan shows that the FSIS had tested for DES only from 1972 through 1991.

    On July 13, 1999, the Swiss Offices of Veterinary Medicine and of Public Health jointly announced that they had informed the United States government that they had detected DES in two out of 26 samples of beef imported from the United States. In connection with discussions with the European Union on trying to increase United States exports of hormone-free beef, on November 30, 1999, you wrote David Byrne, Commissioner of Health and Consumer Protection of the European Union, that “analyses of meat samples for DES [by the FSIS] are scheduled to begin in the Spring of 2000.”

   The discovery by the Swiss government is troubling both because of potential health risks to consumers overseas and because similar contamination may be present in beef consumed by Americans. It is particularly disturbing that the Department did not discover the problem until the Swiss health officials brought the matter to its attention. Also troubling was the four-month delay in deciding to resume testing for DES and the fact that testing will not begin until this coming spring. Consumers need immediate assurance that the meat they consume does not contain banned drugs such as DES.

   Moreover, resumption of DES testing by the FSIS is necessary but not sufficient. The FSIS should also:

   (1) immediately make public the name of the American firm that was suspended in July 1999 by the Swiss government from its list of approved suppliers because it had sold the beef in which the DES was found;

   (2) conduct a comprehensive investigation to determine how DES got into the beef exported to Switzerland and whether contaminated meat was also sold in the United States. The FSIS should refer the results of that investigation to the Department of Justice for possible criminal prosecution. Section 303(a)(2) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act provides that any person who, “with the intent to defraud or mislead,” sells adulterated meat shall be punished by imprisonment of not more than three years, a fine of not more than $10,000, or both;

   (3) resume testing for all other drugs whose use in food-producing animals is banned by the FDA (even though it is still legal to use these drugs for other purposes), such as dimetridazole (according to the Plan, not tested by the FSIS since 1979), ipronidazole (according to the Plan, not tested by the FSIS since 1991), and other nitroimidazoles (according to the Plan, not tested by the FSIS since 1991). As the experience with DES demonstrates, the failure over several years of FSIS tests to find certain illegal drugs in meat does not mean that such tests should never again be conducted, and testing for all illegal drugs would help deter those who might consider using them in food-producing animals; and

   (4) implement a “trace back” system that could identify the particular farm where an animal was raised. We have been told by both FSIS staff and others that the Department does not now have such a “trace back” capability for meat sold in this country, but recently established such a system for “hormone free” beef exported to the European Union.

   I respectfully urge your prompt attention to this important public health matter.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph. D.
Executive Director

cc: Mr. Thomas J. Billy
Food Safety and Inspection Service