Weak Regulation Means Tainted Beef on U.S. Plates

A USDA report urges better government efforts to limit contaminants in meat.

April 13, 2010— -- The government is doing too little to ensure that the beef Americans eat is uncontaminated by "residual veterinary drugs, pesticides and heavy metals," according to an audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general.

The findings appear in a report issued March 25. Among the recommendations of the report is a call for better coordination among the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure the safety of the country's meat supply.

"We found that the national residue program is not accomplishing its mission of monitoring the food supply for harmful residues," the report concluded. "Together, FSIS, FDA, and EPA have not established thresholds for many dangerous substances (e.g., copper or dioxin), which has resulted in meat with these substances being distributed in commerce."

The report continued, "Additionally, FSIS does not attempt to recall meat, even when its tests have confirmed the excessive presence of veterinary drugs."

At the heart of the problem, according to the report, is that while FSIS inspectors may be able to detect contaminants in meat before it is released to the market, the lack of guidelines on potentially toxic substances prevents a recall. Such guidelines for pesticides and other chemicals would fall under the purview of the EPA, while limits for antibiotics used in the cattle industry would be the responsibility of the FDA.

The report cited one example of the problem. In 2008, Mexican authorities rejected a shipment of U.S. beef because it contained copper in excess of Mexico's tolerances. But upon the meat's return, the FSIS had no way to prevent the meat from being distributed in the United States because the FDA has no guidelines for copper levels in meat.

Solution Would Be Expensive

"Though we acknowledge that setting tolerances is an expensive and time-consuming process, FSIS needs a systematic and formal process to request FDA and EPA to set tolerances for residues that are deemed potentially hazardous," the report stated.

In a statement released today, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association expressed their support for the recommendations.

"It is critical that the federal government continue funding food safety research at a high level, focusing on the validation of safety systems and process controls to reduce any potential hazards," the statement reads. "While the U.S. beef supply is extraordinarily safe by any nation's standards, we take seriously any potential food safety concern."

Messages left with the FSIS, the FDA, the EPA were not immediately returned.

ABC News correspondent Brian Hartman contributed to this report.