An article appearing this week in Consumer Reports calling into question the safety of USDA-inspected meat and poultry is drawing fire from USDA and National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.
The article purports that data on drug residue from USDA Food Inspection and Safety Service, as well as other information and interviews, “raise serious concerns about the safeguards put in place to protect the U.S. meat supply.”
It also questions FSIS testing standards and enforcement actions and livestock producers’ integrity, raising alarm about health risks to consumers, the USDA and NCBA said.
“This story is sensational and fear-based infotainment aimed at confusing shoppers with pseudoscience and scare tactics,” Carmen Rottenberg, USDA acting deputy undersecretary for food safety, said a statement.
The article — “What’s Really in Your Meat?” — “draws false and misleading conclusions meant to deceive consumers and reduce the consumption of meat,” NCBA stated.
The article stemmed from a March 2017 Freedom of Information Act request. In its haste to be transparent, FSIS mistakenly released unconfirmed, preliminary test results for samples taken from poultry, Rottenberg said.
“We corrected our mistake with the requestor. However, the unconfirmed sampling results continue to be passed around as accurate, truthful information — they are not,” she said.
The data released in error were the results of an initial screening, without the follow-up testing included. The screening instrument very often produces a response, which is why FSIS completes the screening process using controls and other evidence to determine if the responses are confirmed and reproducible, she said.
The final, confirmed and validated test results showed there were no drug residues in the chicken. If violative drug residues are found, FSIS does not allow the product to be sold for human consumption, she said.
“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,” she said.
The path chosen by Consumer Reports does nothing to protect or inform and will only serve to create doubts about safety in the minds of consumers, NCBA said.
“Knowingly printing inaccurate and misleading articles, which rely on information that is known to be false, misleads consumers about the current food-safety programs at USDA. Those programs have long been the gold standard for food safety,” NCBA said.
In an email to Capital Press, a Consumer Reports spokeswoman said the initial data set recorded thousands of data points showing detectable amounts of drugs in meat samples. A revised set issued by FSIS, using a self-determined threshold, showed many of the results changed to “Residue Not Detected.”
“However, when the results that did remain were compared to the initial set, near-identical results appeared, including down to the final decimal place,” the spokeswoman said.
The article is also misleading about the FSIS testing method, saying the cutoffs are much higher than those of other government agencies, Rottenberg said. In fact, by setting the allowable levels to half of the acceptable levels set by Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, FSIS’ method is even more stringent and more protective of human health, she said.
The Consumer Reports spokeswoman said the magazine is sticking to its contention the FSIS residue-presence cutoff amounts are higher than those used by scientists in other government agencies, including FDA and EPA, as well as by scientists outside the government.
In addition, “USDA’s cutoffs have never been peer reviewed by outside experts, the magazine’s spokeswoman said.
“Consumer reports admits in their closing paragraph that the real agenda behind this piece is to convince Americans to eat less meat, Rottenberg said.
The article states that Consumer Reports’ food-safety experts don’t think the concerns raised in the investigation mean consumers should give up or necessarily cut back on meat because the findings are “too uncertain and the potential risks still unknown.”
But, it continues, “research suggests that many Americans eat more meat than recommended for good health and reducing meat consumption can be better for the environment. The potential problems identified here may be enough for some to consider eating 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,” Rottenberg said.
The Consumer Reports investigation raises serious concerns about the presence of banned or seriously regulated drugs that should not be allowed in food meant for humans, the spokeswoman said.
“Consumer Reports scientists are confident that the USDA’s data indicate an issue within the food system, and we believe the government must address this,” she said.