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Drugs in meat: views on congressional findings

By Keith HendersonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 1986


IS the government satisfactorily performing its task of protecting such vital resources as food? A recent report by the US House Government Operations Committee took sharp aim at that question, charging the Food and Drug Administration with inadequately monitoring the safety of the nation's food supply. The report, ``Human Food Safety and the Regulation of Animal Drugs,'' dealt largely with the FDA's record in approving drugs given to livestock and poultry, traces of which show up in meats and other animal-derived foodstuffs.

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Using the controversy over the FDA's regulation of animal drugs as a basis for discussion, the Monitor gathered several perspectives -- from the governmental, consumer, and scientific sectors -- on that key question. What the report said

The Government Operations Committee report charges the FDA with failing to test and approve 90 percent of the drugs given to animals by farmers and veterinarians -- some 20,000 individual products. This failure violates federal law, it asserts. As many as 4,000 of those substances, the report states, could present hazards to human health if they turn up as residues in meat and other products.

The document also raised doubts about the safety of many of the drugs that the agency had approved in the past, pointing out that they were approved under previous standards less stringent than those now in force. While noting that the FDA may have staff shortages that hinder its ability to do the testing and monitoring needed, the report indicated that the agency has tended to bow before pressures from manufacturers and users of the animal drugs, both with regard to getting new drugs on the market and taking old ones off.

Those involved in preparing the report emphasize that many of their figures came from FDA sources themselves, and that the report had unanimous bipartisan support. Government agencies defend their roles

Dr. Richard Carnevale, deputy director of new animal drug evaluation at the FDA, argues that the figure of 90 percent of animal drugs being unapproved is overblown. It ``lumps together'' a lot of similar chemical products that are on the market in multiple forms and dosages, he says, but that are ``one drug in the generic sense.''

Still other items in the overall figure, he says, are likely to be drugs given to animals that aren't used for food. Given agency resources and the large number of drugs in circulation, the FDA has to concentrate ``on fairly potent prescription items -- those used in a large number of animals and used frequently,'' says Dr. Carnevale, who has been with the agency for 10 years.

In the ``real world,'' he says, compliance with the ``letter of the law'' -- complete testing of every drug on the market -- would be ``virtually impossible.'' He explains that unapproved animal drugs sometimes have ``interim market status,'' but that this is granted only to items judged unlikely to be considered carcinogenic.

With regard to drugs approved in the past, the FDA has what it calls ``causal review'' -- meaning that if evidence comes up that the drug is ineffective or dangerous, it will be looked at again. On average, the agency has conducted two such reviews annually in recent years, and all of those, says Carnevale, arose over questions of efficacy, not health danger. ``We use enough conservatism around here that when drugs are approved [allowed on the market] . . . consumers are probably adequately protected,'' he observes.

What about industry pressure? It exists to a degree, says Dr. Carnevale. But the agency's record of approving only 13 new drugs since 1982 shows that the process is not being speeded up to appease industry, in his view.

The US Department of Agriculture comes into the picture as animals are slaughtered. The USDA ``routinely'' monitors meat production for residues of ``100 or more'' chemicals, says Nancy Robinson of the department's Food Safety and Inspection Service. She says that the department tests ``at a level that we think can assure detection of chemicals.'' The USDA works closely with the FDA, she says, to develop analytical methods for better detection of drugs and to set priorities on the kinds of drugs that most need monitoring.