[Beef trusts] pride themselves on producing a safe and wholesome product
January 29, 2021 12:44 AM   Subscribe

In 2008 Mexico refused a shipment of beef from the United States because its sampled copper content was too high to meet Mexican food safety standards. Regulators in the US could not prevent the beef from being re-sold to domestic distributors because the US does not have any limits on the copper content in food. A 2010 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Inspector General report concluded...
[the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the USDA] is unable to determine if meat has unacceptable levels of such potentially hazardous substances as copper and arsenic, does not test for pesticides EPA has determined to be of high risk, and does not employ the most efficient use of its limited laboratory resources or the most efficient ways of testing for harmful residues. and concluded that [a]part from the tolerance for arsenic in poultry, there are no established tolerances for heavy metals, such as lead, cadmium, copper, or arsenic in meat.
The 2010 reports stated that the USDA and its agencies and services depend on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to set the standards. As of January 2021, FDA consumer web pages on “Metals and Your Food”, “Arsenic in Food and Dietary Supplements”, “Lead in Food, Foodwares, and Dietary Supplements”, and “Combination Metals Testing” do not mention any US limits on these heavy metals in meat.
posted by XMLicious (9 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just a guess, is this about lobbyists buying the regulations they want? We could reform this one department and fix that, but we need to outlaw bribery across the board. It goes by many names, but it's bribery. How much did last year's campaign cost! They expect something in return.

It needs to be given a bad name. Megabribes. Whatever, this isn't by the people and for the people.
posted by adept256 at 2:11 AM on January 29 [3 favorites]

Could also be good old-fashioned regulatory capture! No campaign donations even needed, just fund your department through inspection/other business fees and cycle staff from industry to government and back again. (I don't work enough with Ag to know if this is a big issue for them, but it is in the FCC and other agencies I've worked with so it's not a huge logic leap)
posted by bowtiesarecool at 5:02 AM on January 29 [6 favorites]

Capture is certainly possible, but good-old fashioned "too many cooks" seems like it's a big problem too. From the executive summary:

To address these serious shortcomings in the national residue program, FSIS, EPA, and FDA need to take steps to improve how they coordinate with one another to accomplish the program’s mission. Recognizing that they needed to work together to prevent residue from entering the
food supply, the three agencies established the Surveillance Advisory Team (SAT) and the Interagency Residue Control Group (IRCG) as a way of coming together to communicate and coordinate.4 We found, however, that there were a wide range of problems with relying on this
process: not all agencies were equally committed to the SAT and IRCG; essential participants were not required to attend; and no one agency had authority to ensure that necessary actions were taken to deal with disagreements.

This is a persistent problem in US federal programs or initiatives in which multiple, separate agencies have overlapping authority. Different agencies bring different priorities to the issue, disagreement and poor inter-agency communication leads to breakdowns in the process (or a failure to establish a process in the first place), and no one actor wants to cede any authority over the process lest they never get it back. Without anyone fully in charge of the program, the various agency officials convene working groups and publish reports (in which they recommend "capacity building" and a bunch of non-mandatory communication improvements) and decades later very little has improved.

It seems like the "easy" solution here would be to put one agency in charge of this issue, mandate that they produce thresholds, guidance, and a workable inspection regime, and insist that other agencies provide technical support as needed (with an independent arbiter, maybe at OMB or something, authorized to conclusively resolve fights), and after a certain amount of time the appropriate IG audits the entire process and wherever they find friction they either adjust or, if necessary, fire or reassign people who aren't playing ball.
posted by saladin at 5:57 AM on January 29 [2 favorites]

Or, you know, just copy Mexico's since it stronger than ours already...
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:16 AM on January 29 [2 favorites]

Jimmy: I have a crazy friend who says meat shouldn't contain heavy metals. Is he crazy?

Troy McClure: No, just ignorant. You see, your crazy friend doesn't understand that heavy metals are a natural part of the world around us, in everything from pipes to televisions to locomotives. You'd like to be as strong as a locomotive, wouldn't you, Jimmy?"

Jimmy: I sure would, Mr. McClure! I was a grade A moron to ever question heavy metals in meat!

McClure: Yes, you were, Jimmy. Yes, you were.
posted by star gentle uterus at 6:50 AM on January 29 [17 favorites]

I remember reading that FDA was specifically forbidden from regulating meat and it was left under the purview of USDA when FDA was created. So this may be a consequence of that. The article says that

The testing program for cattle is run by the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which also tests meat for such pathogens as salmonella and certain dangerous strains of E. coli. But the residue program relies on assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency, which sets tolerance levels for human exposure to pesticides and other pollutants, and the Food and Drug Administration, which does the same for antibiotics and other medicines.

It does not say that FDA has authority over that. It is still left to the UDSA, and that is the problem. It is well known that the USDA is completely an organ of the agriculture industry; with even more of a cozy relationship as compared to EPA and FDA. The fact that EPA and FDA did not set limits could simply be because they have no authority to do so.

I remember reading that in the context of frozen pizzas. One set of pizzas had a different authority regulating it than others.
posted by indianbadger1 at 7:43 AM on January 29 [3 favorites]

I was going to say this is another argument for going off beef again, but I now wonder how much copper is allowed in Impossible Burgers and/or kale. IIRC a lot of brassicas contain trace heavy metals, although I doubt it's on the levels of, say, tuna.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:26 AM on January 29 [2 favorites]

It seems like the "easy" solution here would be to put one agency in charge of this issue,

The actual effect will be: New agency created to be the authority in charge of this issue. Now there's FOUR agencies with overlapping authority....
posted by happyroach at 12:24 PM on January 29 [2 favorites]

Yeah... my understanding is that the multiplicity of government agencies with food safety jurisdiction, from the underfunded FDA with actual police powers but statutorily forbidden to directly regulate the agribusiness of the descendants of the people who won range wars, to the toothless regulatory-captured USDA with those responsibilities who, by design, can't do anything about pink slime or poisonous product recalls except ask industry politely, is all an intentional erosion impairing the US Government's ability to maintain food safety.

It's the century-long aftermath of The Jungle era at the beginning of the twentieth century, when if you squinted it was the Republicans who were still sorta-kinda the progressive good guys despite abject failures and cowardice during Presidential Reconstruction decades earlier and onwards, and when Teddy Roosevelt talked about possibly getting along with “communistic Socialism” and other sorts of socialists. That led to the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, eventually resulting in the creation of the FDA decades later, and what we see in the OP is the result of a century-plus of class warfare and industrial interests undermining the spirit and letter of those public health measures, contributing to the United States of the twenty-first century having some of the worst longevity and healthcare outcomes in the developed world.

(Also, I feel compelled to mention that I initially learned all of this in public high school history and health classes in New England. People often disdain American public schools as providing poor education, and mine had some shortcomings, but I say bravo for public school teachers! Crank up those salaries and defend collective bargaining rights to the end!)
posted by XMLicious at 1:13 PM on January 29 [4 favorites]

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