Beef produced at a small Michigan farm was found to contain toxic “forever chemicals" after the cattle were fed crops grown with fertilizer made from contaminated wastewater biosolids, state officials said Friday.
A consumption advisory issued by state agencies stopped short of a recall, noting there are no government standards for the substances in beef.
But it said buyers should know that meat from Grostic Cattle Co. in Livingston County may contain one of the chemicals known collectively as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The particular compound in the beef is known as perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, or PFOS.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “determined that prolonged consumption of the beef from this farm could increase PFOS levels in the human body,” a news release said.
High levels of water- and grease-resistant PFAS chemicals, which are used in a host of industrial and consumer products, have been linked to numerous health problems, from liver and thyroid damage to high cholesterol and compromised immune systems. They are known as “forever chemicals” because they don't break down in the environment or the human body.
Studies have shown that crops treated with PFAS-laced biosolids can absorb the chemicals, so it’s reasonable that cattle given those foods would have detectable levels in their bodies, said Jamie DeWitt, an East Carolina University toxicologist. PFAS has also turned up in milk at some dairy farms.
Grostic Cattle Co. has cooperated with the state's investigation, according to the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team. The company is notifying customers and removing its beef and affected cattle from the market. The state is providing financial help to reimburse buyers.
“Needless to say, I and my family are surprised to find ourselves and our beloved farm in the middle of a PFAS contamination issue," owner Jason Grostic said in an email. "Our family farm has been serving the state of Michigan for 100 years. It is because of that commitment that we intend to cooperate with all city, state, county and federal agencies to determine who is responsible for this unfortunate situation.”
The 300-acre operation, which has about 120 cows, sells primarily to individual customers at farm markets and elsewhere, said Scott Dean, spokesman for the state Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
The Livingston Educational Service Agency said it bought about 30 pounds of the farm's beef for school lunch programs last fall and had used it in chili served one day per month.
“We will be disposing of all remaining beef that we have in inventory and using a different provider in the future,” the agency said.
Grostic Cattle Co. came under scrutiny during a four-year state investigation of sites where municipal wastewater biosolids tainted with PFAS have been spread as cropland fertilizers.
Michigan last year banned land applications of industrial biosolids containing more than 150 parts per billion of PFOS and requires testing of biosolids before they are placed on land.
In 2018, high levels of PFOS were detected in wastewater from the city of Wixom's treatment plant. Biosolid material generated there contained 2,150 ppb. The chemicals originated from a chrome plating facility that discharged wastewater to the plant.
The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team focused on the Wixom plant and several others for a study of how the agricultural use of biosolids containing the chemicals can affect the environment.
Investigators tested soil and water at farm fields that had used Wixom biosolids. Data from a shallow groundwater monitoring well revealed the presence of a PFAS compound at Grostic Cattle Co.
Further testing found PFAS in cattle feed crops grown there, as well as in manure and soil. The farm provided frozen beef cuts for analysis this month at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab, which measured an average PFOS level of 1.9 ppb.
“These results were lower than USDA’s current health screening value and lower than beef samples previously tested in other states,” the state PFAS team said, adding that it decided to notify the public out of caution.
Abigail Hendershott, executive director of the PFAS team, described the Grostic farm beef contamination as “a rare occurrence” that probably wouldn't happen again because of the state's crackdown on discharges of the chemicals to wastewater plants and their presence in biosolids.
The Grostic farm received “the largest and most frequent applications of the Wixom treatment plants biosolids," she said.
But activist groups said the discovery was alarming. Biosolids are believed to be responsible for the contamination of wells in several counties, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters said.
“We know there is a PFAS contamination crisis in our state, and it is unfortunately no surprise that food and crops can be impacted, ” said Tony Spaniola, co-chair of the Great Lakes PFAS Action Network.