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USDA Inspector General: Meat Supply Routinely Tainted with Harmful Residues

Next time you're at an eatery whose sourcing practices you don't trust, avoid the veal. Skip the burger, too. Those are the immediate takeaways from this stomach-turning report (PDF) from the USDA's Office of the Inspector General. The long-term takeaways are more profound - and disturbing.

The report focuses on the USDA's system for keeping hazardous chemical residues--"veterinary drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals"-- out of the meat supply. You know, meat--the stuff that Americans eat more than a half a pound of per day, on average.

How is the agency doing at this critical task? From reading the report, I'd describe its system as sieve-like--but that would be unfair to sieves. After all, those kitchen implements do at least catch most of the solid bits suspended in a liquid. The USDA routinely lets chemical residues flow right into the nation's meat supply--without catching a damned thing.

The problem is not trivial, as the report makes clear:

Residues of drugs, pesticides, and heavy metals differ from microbiological pathogens like E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria Monocytogenes, which the public more readily associates with food safety. While cooking meat properly can destroy these pathogens before they are consumed, no amount of cooking will destroy residues.

In fact ... "In some cases, heat may actually break residues down into components that are more harmful to consumers." [Emphasis mine.]

Evidently, the problem is worst of all for meat from animals raised on dairy farms. Such cows find their way into the beef supply in two ways. "Spent" dairy cows--ie, ones that are too sick or old to lactate--get slaughtered for beef. Their meat is so tough that it's mainly used as hamburger. As for veal, much of the U.S. veal market is supplied by the male offspring of dairy cows. Such animals are known as "bob veal."