by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Animals

Apr 10 2010

GAO on FDA and USDA: irradiation, food safety, and humane treatment of animals

It’s the weekend and I’m cleaning out my e-files.  The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency, has just released a bunch of reports complaining about the way the FDA and USDA do business:

Food Irradiation: FDA Could Improve Its Documentation and Communication of Key Decisions on Food Irradiation Petitions (GAO-10-309R, February 16, 2010, 23 pages).

labels on food products subject to FDA jurisdiction do not have to be reviewed and preapproved by FDA before marketing. Rather, the processor is responsible for properly labeling its products. In fact, FDA officials told us that they do not collect information on how irradiated foods are labeled and marketed. In contrast, USDA reviews and preapproves all labels before use on meat and poultry products and has denied label submissions that do not meet its requirements…FDA does not require the product’s ingredient list to disclose that a particular ingredient has been irradiated, while USDA generally does.

Food Safety: FDA Should Strengthen Its Oversight of Food Ingredients Determined to Be Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) (GAO-10-246, February 3, 2010, 69 pages).

FDA only reviews those GRAS determinations that companies submit to the agency’s voluntary notification program…the agency has not systematically reconsidered GRAS substances since the 1980s… FDA has largely not responded to concerns about GRAS substances, such as salt and the trans fats in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, that individuals and consumer groups have raised through 11 citizen petitions submitted to the agency between 2004 and 2008…FDA’s approach to regulating nanotechnology allows engineered nanomaterials to enter the food supply as GRAS substances without FDA’s knowledge. In contrast to FDA’s approach, all food ingredients that incorporate engineered nanomaterials must be submitted to regulators in Canada and the European Union before they can be marketed.

Food safety note #1: This arrives in the middle of the latest set of FDA recalls, this time of nearly 100 products made with a flavor enhancer, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, contaminated with Salmonella.

Food safety note #2: the Produce Safety Project at Georgetown University has estimated the cost of foodborne illness:  $152 billion annually, of which $39 billion is due to leafy greens and other vegetables.

Food and Drug Administration: Opportunities Exist to Better Address Management Challenges. (GAO-10-279, February 19, 2010, 54 pages).

Through reviewing reports…GAO determined that FDA’s management challenges include recruiting, retaining, and developing its workforce; modernizing its information systems; coordinating internally and externally; communicating with the public; and keeping up with scientific advances…While FDA has taken steps to align its activities and resources to strategic goals, these efforts in its centers and offices are not clear, making it difficult to connect the agency’s use of resources to the achievement of its goals.

If you feel gossipy (or want to interpret the raw data for yourself), you can read what FDA staff actually told GAO interviewers.

Humane Methods of Slaughter Act: Actions Are Needed to Strengthen Enforcement (GAO-10-203, February 19, 2010, 60 pages). [The actual survey responses are here.  And a shorter version given as testimony is here.]

The guidance does not clearly indicate when certain enforcement actions should be taken for an egregious act–one that is cruel to animals or a condition that is ignored and leads to the harming of animals. A noted humane handling expert has stated that FSIS inspectors need clear directives to improve consistency of HMSA enforcement. According to GAO’s survey, FSIS’s training may be insufficient.

This, one can only assume, is an understatement.

The GAO does important work, no?  Now if only government agencies would listen to it.

Aug 28 2009

Antibiotics in farm animals: the fight is on

I served as a member of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production which issued its final report in April 2008.  Our most important recommendation: reduce the widespread use of antibiotics as growth promoters and as a routine method of preventing infections.  Why?  Because of increasing evidence of human resistance to the kinds of antibiotics used in farm animal production and to related antibiotics.

You think everyone involved in production of farm animals understands the dangers of continued overuse of these drugs?  Not a chance.  A coalition of 20 meat producing groups has asked Congress not to restrict their use of antibiotics.  The American Meat Institute has issued a statement condemning our report.  The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has done even more.  It just issued its own report taking on the Pew Commission’s antibiotic recommendations.  Why the ferocity and why now?  Congress has submitted a bill – the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act of 2009 (PAMTA) – that would restrict use of several antibiotics in farm animal production.

Ralph Loglisci, who was the Pew Commission’s communication director, has an excellent blog post dealing with the AVMA statement.  If you want to understand what all this is about, take a look at it.

While these debates continue, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are increasingly turning up in our food supply.  Tell your representatives to support PAMTA!

Jul 15 2009

Let’s stop using antibiotics in animal agriculture

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production (of which I was a member) recommended as its #1 priority the elimination of antibiotics for promoting growth and other unnecesary purposes in farm animals.  I discussed this report in a previous post.

There is much fuss about this issue this week because the House is holding hearings on the Preservation for Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act.  If passed, this will phase out the use of seven classes of antibiotics important to human health that are currently allowed to be used as growth promoters in animal agriculture.  The FDA testified in favor of the act.  So did members of the Pew Commission: Robert Martin, Fedele Baucio, and Bill and Nicolette Niman.

So who could possibly be opposed to such a good idea?  How about the American Veterinary Medical Association, for starters, apparently more worried about its members’ self interest than about sensible use of antibiotics.

Maybe we’ll get lucky and the Congress will do the right thing on this one.

Update July 16: Ralph Logisci, who helped staff the Pew Commission, posted a blog on the movement to ban non-therapeutic antibiotics on Civil Eats.  It goes into considerable depth on the issues and is well worth reading. And the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) has just produced a report on eliminating the use of non-thereapuetic antibiotics in, of all things, ethanol production.  Who knew?  Turns out they use antibiotics to control fermentation.  Oops.  Not a good idea.  IATP says plenty of alternatives are available and the ethanol industry should adopt them.

July 20 update: in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the meat industry’s July 9 statement in opposition to the bill attempting to ban antibiotic use.

Jun 6 2009

Pew Charitable Trusts vs. Animal Drugs

If you take the Washington, DC Metro this month, be sure to look for the posters at the Capitol South and Union Station stops (the ones closest to the Senate and House staff offices).  The ads are part of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, aimed at reducing the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.  Take a look at who is “hogging our antibiotics” and encourage your representatives to do so too.

Feb 7 2009

And now, genetically engineered goats!

On Friday (of course), the FDA approved the first genetically modified goats. These have been bioengineered with a human gene that makes the anti-clotting protein, antithrombin. The goats excrete this protein into their milk (I hope their babies aren’t drinking this milk).   Antithrombin ordinarily has to be extracted from human plasma, an unreliable source.  This way, if more antithrombin is needed, the company that invented this scheme  (GTC Biotherapeutics) just milks more goats.  The FDA had previously approved doing things like this in theory, but this is the first practical application.  Some antithrombin with your goat cheese, anyone?

Nov 5 2008

California passes prop. #2

President Obama!  Other amazing things happened too.  I’m not sure which is more amazing: the approval of Proposition #2 by an astonishing 63% of California votors, or today’s up-to-the-second Wikipedia entry on the election results.  If you read Prop #2, you can see that it abolishes veal crates, battery cages, and sow crates and requires veal, chickens, and pregnant pigs to be given enough space to turn around, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.  They can’t do these things now?  Nope.   So now what happens: will meat producers reform their confinement practices?  Or will they simply move their production operations to other states or countries?  We can only wait until 2015 – which is when all this is supposed to come into effect – and see.

Oct 24 2008

USDA proposes new pasture rules for organic ruminants

Under the current rules, meat sold as organic must come from animals with access to pasture.  Loophole alert!  The animals did not have to be raised on pasture.  The USDA now proposes to close the loophole as it applies to ruminant animals. This proposal is open for comment.  If you want to see how such things are done, this one is an excellent example (it includes a detailed history of the regulations, among other useful things).  USDA wrote this in response to more than 80,000 comments on the “announcement of proposed rulemaking.”  Virtually all of these wanted organically raised ruminants to be grazing on pasture.  The Federal Register notice is 24 pages of tiny type but my immediate take is that the USDA proposals are really good.  Take a look and see what you think.  I’m withholding final judgment until somebody does a decent summary so I don’t get bogged down in “We propose to remove the word “or” at the end of paragraph X and replacing the period at the end of paragraph Y with a semicolon.”

Sep 26 2008

China awash in melamine? Now it’s zoo animals

So much for “just” pet food.  Now the Shanghai zoo has baby lions and orangutans with melamine-induced kidney stones.  Tainted products have made their way into Japan and Taiwan, and the Europeans are worried that melamine-tainted milk products could be in  candies, toffees, and chocolate.  They will be testing Chinese products containing at least 15% milk.   But what about soy products, I wonder?   Those too are supposed to be high in protein and might be good candidates for adulteration.

And just to reiterate: last year’s pet food scandal showed that while it takes lots of melamine to cause kidney crystals, it takes hardly any to form crystals when cyanuric acid (a by-product of melamine) is present.  The amount of melamine in food for humans, pets, and zoo animals should be nothing but zero.    Food safety officials should test like mad and tighten up policies, and right now!  As for China: it had best get its food safety act together and fast.