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Got Milk? Got Drugs? Got Both?: State Responds After Idaho Dairy Cattle Test Positive in Food Safety Tests

High levels of antibiotics and other drugs found in cattle linked to dairies


The Food and Drug Administration is worried about what it calls an "important potential public health issue." It could be in your latte or your child's bowl of breakfast cereal. It could be in your refrigerator or freezer. At the very least, the FDA wants to make certain that it's not in any of the 8 million milk-producing cattle in the United States or the 500,000 dairy cows in Idaho.

When test results released last year by the United States Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service showed extremely high levels of drugs and antibiotics in cattle from dairies across the nation, including in Idaho, the federal agency announced it would launch a series of tests to address a potential problem. The Idaho dairy industry decided to preclude the FDA action with some unofficial testing of its own. Yet records of the testing are inaccessible and records of their strategy meeting don't exist.

On Jan. 4, dairymen from across the Gem State met to address the issue at the Boise headquarters of the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. Officials at the ISDA told BW there are no minutes, no recordings and no notes of the proceedings.

Attendees decided that Idaho dairies would send milk samples for drug and antibiotic analysis to the ISDA Animal Health Lab. But the ISDA kept no record of the analysis, and the findings were sent to the Idaho Dairymen's Association, which has exclusive ownership of the findings.

"These were unofficial samples. We don't have to keep a record," said Brian Oakey, deputy director of the ISDA.

When asked if the ISDA would be interested in what the results might be, Oakey responded with a flat "No."

Reactions to BW's investigation into the findings of drug residues, federal plans for sampling and the Jan. 4 meeting ranged from not surprised to outraged.

"I would argue that that's exactly what [ISDA] should have been doing," said Republican Sen. Tim Corder, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

"It's troublesome because these are the people charged with oversight," said Democratic Sen. Les Bock, member of the Agricultural Committee

And at least one attendee of the Jan. 4 meeting was upset.

"There was a regulator in bed with the industry, saying, 'It's OK, we'll help cover your butt,'" said one dairy industry veteran, who asked to remain anonymous. "Honestly, I don't know if you'll find anyone inside the dairy industry who will talk to you on the record. They're all employed and they like their jobs."

Through the course of our reporting, BW was continuously advised to contact either the ISDA or the Idaho Dairymen's Association for their comment. Yet, the ISDA was reluctant to participate in an interview, and the Dairymen's Association did not return repeated calls.

The Violations

The law is as clear as a cowbell. The presence of drug or antibiotic residues exceeding a safe or tolerable level, set by the FDA, is illegal. One of the highest priorities of the agency is to "ensure the safety of animal-derived foods for human consumption." As a result, the FDA is responsible for making certain that drugs used to treat or prevent diseases are not abused or misused in food-producing animals.

When you think of beef, a dairy cow doesn't readily spring to mind. But when illegal substances are found in meat, inspectors say it's a good bet that the root of the problem can be traced to a dairy. According to the FDA, while 7.7 percent of cattle slaughtered in the United States are dairy cattle, a disproportional 67 percent of drug residue violations are tied directly to dairy cattle (another 27 percent was traced to veal calves from dairy farms). According to the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service, violations of drug residues occur three times as often in tissues from dairy cows than in beef cows.

But drugs are as common as cow patties in the nation's dairies. An average dairy cow lives six or seven years, is regularly pregnant and is constantly being milked. Antibiotics are administered to dairy cows for treatment of mastitis, a potentially fatal infection of the mammary gland. Treatment is possible with long-acting antibiotics, but milk from such cows is not marketable until drug residues have cleared the animal's system. Cows being treated for mastitis are supposed to be segregated from the milk-producing herd to alert dairy workers.

"Some dairies go as far as having so-called 'hospital barns,' which would house any cow undergoing treatment," said Corder. "Some processors are very sensitive about this."