The group said the National Residue Program (NRP) does not routinely test for compounds, such as dioxins and certain heavy metals, which pose a high risk while other substances posing little risk are regularly included in sampling plans.
It added that the analysis found the NRP lacks clear processes for incorporating new research and responding to emerging contamination threats.
Recommendation and USDA response
Pew’s safe food project made nine recommendations for strengthening the program.
These included transparent documentation and reporting of sampling plans and results, for compounds of health risk without established tolerance levels from FDA or EPA, use other guidelines, such as the Codex Alimentarius’ maximum residue limits and provide justifications, based on dietary exposure risk, for inclusion or exclusion of considered compounds.
A USDA-FSIS spokesperson said it is ‘dedicated’ to identifying and addressing emerging food safety issues, including those associated with environmental and chemical residues in meat and poultry.
“Since 2012, FSIS has greatly improved the way it administers the NRP by shifting to a multi-residue method that allows our public health labs to screen for over 100 drugs in one test,” the spokesperson told FoodQualityNews.
“FSIS is in the process of addressing several of the recommendations contained in the report, and in at least one instance has already done so. Most recently in December of 2015, FSIS announced a Mstandardized approach to be used when sample results from livestock or poultry carcasses reveal chemicals for which neither the FDA nor the EPA have set tolerances or action levels.
“This new structured approach will better protect the public when these compounds are detected.”
Pew said its assessment builds on previous examinations by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, a National Academy of Sciences committee, and the Government Accountability Office.
Role of the NRP
The NRP collects samples at slaughterhouses and ports of entry from nine food animal classes (find more here).
It tests them for certain contaminants, comparing the results with maximum levels permitted to be in foods by the FDA or EPA during the drug approval or pesticide registration process.
When unsafe levels of a monitored compound are found, the products are condemned and discarded. The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) may request a recall if contaminated food has entered the market.
Sandra Eskin, director of Pew’s safe food project, said: “Its lack of transparency in identifying chemicals of concern and its lack of a systematic process for integrating new science and emerging risks raise some serious concerns about its effectiveness in protecting consumers.”
Chemicals that pose public health risks are not regularly included in the program’s testing, said Pew.
It gave the example of dioxins that are not routinely monitored.
Pew said according to NRP publications, this is because maximum safe concentrations for these toxins in meat, poultry, and egg products have not been set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Selection of compounds included in the sampling plans is decided by the Surveillance Advisory Team (SAT), made up of representatives from the FSIS, FDA, EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service and Agricultural Research Service.
Pew said it offers no justification for decisions to exclude drugs such as dexamethasone and dipyrone, which scored higher in the NRP’s published risk assessment than several monitored compounds.
It added decisions to include some compounds, such as avermectins, are based at least in part on studies that are outdated or were not peer-reviewed.