Got Milk? What About Drugs?

As high levels of antibiotics and other drugs are found in Idaho's dairy cattle, the state struggles with what to do next.

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 say 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 this 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, we were 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.

“Hospital Burns”

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 milkproducing 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.”

A primer in American history is necessary to understand food safety and meat inspection in the United States. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln founded the USDA, appointing a chemist to oversee what would become the FDA. As stockyards and large meat packing plants multiplied, President Chester Arthur established the Bureau of Animal Industry, the forerunner of the Food Safety and Inspection Service. Inspections of meat and cattle sent to slaughter began as early as 1891. What followed was historic. Author Upton Sinclair took aim at the brutal, exploitive meat packing industry in 1905’s The Jungle, prompting President Theodore Roosevelt’s order to post federal inspectors in meat packing houses. The FDA was formalized in 1927 and regular inspection of the nation’s meat, poultry and dairy became commonplace.

In 2010, the FSIS reported blatant violations in the U.S. food chain. A survey of dairy cows sent to slaughter for beef discovered illegal amounts of drug residue in the livers and kidneys of cows that otherwise would have been turned into hamburger or T-bones. In other words, hundreds of positive samples of drug residues were found in tissues of animals destined for the nation’s meat supply.

The drugs ranged from the familiar (penicillin) to the obscure (tilmicosin, an anti-microbial used for respiratory disease). FSIS even detected gentamicin. Two federal veterinarians confirmed that gentamicin can remain for up to three years in a cow’s organs. The Institute for Safe Medication Practices labels gentamicin as a “high alert medication,” cautioning the drug has a “heightened risk of causing significant harm.” Its manufacturer, Lexi-Comp, lists possible adverse reactions to the central nervous system, skeletal instability and renal failure.

According to the FSIS, approximately 20,000 samples of tissue from cattle, swine, sheep and goats are tested each year. In 2010, more than 1,100 violations were traced to dairy cows that had been sent to slaughter and 40 of the violations were tracked to Idaho.

“These are scientifically chosen samples, based on several algorithms,” explained an FSIS spokesperson. Federal inspectors do initial sampling at meat processing plants. If there is reason for suspicion, a larger sample is forwarded to one of three FSIS laboratories for confirmation.

In each instance the FSIS residue violation report traced the source to cattle, the majority being dairy cows, which had been sent to beef auction. The 40 incidents in Idaho included eight separate drugs, including 11 violations of illegal limits of penicillin in the kidney. Eight were traced to flunixin, an anti-inflammatory analgesic, and six violations were traced to sulfadimethoxine, an antibiotic. There were four separate violations of the use of gentamicin (any trace of the drug is a violation). There were four more violations of tilmicosin (though it’s not officially banned, its tolerance level is zero).

Some of the violations were off the charts. In July 2010, the FSIS discovered residue of flunixin in a cow traced to the Double A Dairy in Jerome. FSIS said the cow had flunixin 2,000 percent more than the allowed level. In another violation, a dairy cow traced back to a beef auction at the Producers Livestock Marketing Association in Jerome had sulfamethazine in its liver at 27,000 percent higher than the legal level.

“Obviously, we care a great deal about our industry,” said Jordan Lake, spokesman for Double A Dairy. “But that’s all I can tell you. We’ve been told to refer all your calls to the Idaho Dairymen’s Association.”

When we told Lake that the association had not returned any of our calls, he said that’s all he could say.

The Violators

“Drug residue violations in dairy cattle tissues often result from poor practices on the farm,” said Stephanie Yao, spokesman for the FDA. Yao said that the practices may include failing to maintain treatment records, failing to identify treated animals, abusing dosages, increasing the length of treatment and/or giving a drug by an unapproved route of administration.

“The FDA is concerned that the same poor management practices which led to the meat residues may also result in drug residues in milk,” wrote the FDA in a January statement.

“The intent is to conduct the sampling assignment with the cooperation of the states and the milk industry to specifically target those dairies with a history of drug residue violations,” said Yao. “The data obtained from this assignment will provide evidence as to whether the practices on these dairies that have resulted in tissue residue violations are also creating potential milk safety concerns.”

Inspectors test Idaho milk on a regular basis, checking for common antibiotics such as penicillin and ampicillin. But the 2010 FSIS list of violations confirmed what many feared: Dairy farmers may be using drugs that are not regularly tested.

According to the Idaho Department of Agriculture:

  • More than 12.7 billion pounds of milk was pumped from half a million Idaho dairy cows in 2010.
  • Idaho is the second-largest milk producing state in the western United States and ranks third in the nation.
  • Idaho’s dairy industry grew from $73 million in 1970 to $1.88 billion in 2010.
  • Idaho’s dairy industry employs more than 22,730 individuals. Allied industries employ an additional 13,470 workers.

The Magic Valley is the heart of Idaho’s dairy industry with 318 producers and nearly 400,000 cows producing more than 9 billion pounds of milk. Consequently, the majority of the state’s drug residue violators come from the same region.

Oak Valley Dairy in Burley reported $5 million in gross revenues last year. According to the FSIS survey, the dairy was also the home of two cows that had traces of gentamicin and tilmicosin, two drugs with zero tolerance levels. The Double A Dairy in Jerome is home to approximately 13,000 cows. The FSIS reported samples from four Double A animals were over the acceptable limits for ampicillin (600 percent), flunixin (500 percent) and sulfadimethoxine (2,000 percent).

In the Treasure Valley, one Marsing dairy was targeted by the FSIS as a repeat violator. The Van Es Dairy reportedly had tissues from three of its cows register over the tolerated limit for flunixin and sulfadimethoxine.

In December 2010, FSIS and the FDA sent word to Double A, Oak Valley, Van Es and more than 30 other Idaho dairies that federal regulators needed to determine if farms previously identified with drug residues have inadequate farm management practices. But the testing plan met with fierce pushback from the dairy industry, which said consequences could force farmers to needlessly dump millions of gallons of milk.

“What has been served up, up to this point, by Food and Drug has been potentially very damaging to innocent dairy farmers,” said John Wilson, senior vice president for Dairy Farmers of America, the nation’s largest dairy cooperative told the New York Times in January. Wilson said that the nation’s milk was safe, and that there was little reason to think that the slaughterhouse findings would be replicated in tests of the milk supply.

BW obtained a copy of a letter sent to the FDA from the two self-proclaimed friends of Idaho dairymen: the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Milk Producers Federation, representing 85 percent of milk and cultured products, cheese and frozen desserts produced and marketed in the United States. The mega-milk lobbyists pushed back against plans to test dairy samples at Idaho processing facilities. Instead, the IDFA and NMPF lobbied to have milk sampled from farmers’ bulk tanks, which many considered to be a fair and equitable method of testing.

The alleged violators--with direct influence from the ISDA’s dairy bureau chief--crafted the next steps, including unofficial testing, to head off federal intervention.

Solving the Problem

Despite repeated requests, neither Marv Patten, ISDA’s dairy bureau chief nor ISDA Director Celia Gould agreed be interviewed for this story.

The agency did agree however to take some written questions, which were answered by Pam Juker, ISDA chief of staff, and ISDA Deputy Director Brian Oakey.

Both said that the Jan. 4 meeting was not an official ISDA event, despite the fact that it was held at the agency’s headquarters, with Patten helming the session. They said ISDA did not record the meeting and no minutes were taken.

But Oakey insisted that the decision was not part of a subversive effort or a cover up.

“We wanted to be proactive to get information out to producers and the industry,” Oakey said.

Indeed, Idaho’s dairy industry was well represented at the meeting, with more than 50 attendees representing dairy owners, milk processors and veterinarians. In the room were representatives from the Northwest Dairy Association and the Idaho Milk Producers Association. A representative from Jerome Cheese joined on the phone from its Magic Valley headquarters, where every day they turn millions of pounds of milk into 500,000 pounds of cheese.

Information distributed to the attendees included diagrams and instructions of test kits designed to detect antibiotics in animal tissues. Dairymen were also given guidelines for milk screening tests, detailing acceptable and unacceptable sensitivity levels of each drug that would be tested by the FDA. In addition, attendees were given an article from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, spelling out the consequence of the use of prohibited drugs in food animals.

“In the instance of repeated or flagrant abuse of the laws, an injunction is placed against the producer until such time as all animals on the premises can be shown to be free of residues,” stated the JAVMA article. “If the animals are not free of residues within 60 days, the injunction may become permanent. In extreme cases, responsible persons may be fined or imprisoned.”

At the meeting, dairy industry representatives crafted a plan to conduct unofficial testing. And while the tests were done at the ISDA Animal Health Laboratory, agency officials said they did not propose the testing and added that they did not see the results, nor did the ISDA keep any copies or records of the results. Oakey added that because the testing was not state-ordered, the results will not affect any current dairy programs.

“The results of the milk tests are the property of and in the possession of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association,” said Juker. “If you want to know what the results were you’re going to need to talk to them.”

The Dairymen’s Association, founded in 1944, promotes the Gem State’s $1.8 billion industry and is funded through dairy producer assessments. Juker said the Dairymen’s Association recommended the milk sample testing protocol, but there was no official record of what that protocol entailed.

Sen. Tim Corder, a veteran of farming and politics, said ISDA and Idaho dairymen should be credited with not being complacent on the issue.

“If I was in the industry, I’d want to know about the problem so I could fix it,” said Corder. “If it was fixed, I don’t know if I’d want that to be public knowledge. If you solve the problem, that’s the goal. But if you can’t solve the problem, make it public, absolutely.”

Corder was quick to add that a continual violator shouldn’t be cut any slack.

“A repeat offender? That’s a problem,” said Corder. “They don’t get a pass. Not from the department. Not from the industry.”

Sen. Les Bock agreed with his Ag committee colleague.

“Idaho’s dairy industry has been trying to clean up its act, and we want to believe that,” said Bock. “But if it begins to look like they’re not, it’s going to hurt their credibility with the committee.”

Bock stared at the FSIS violation report.

“I don’t buy anything other than organic anyway,” said Bock, pointing at the list. “This is why.”

What's Next?

Though the FDA announced plans for testing of Idaho dairies, those tests have yet to start.

“Nothing’s been finalized,” said Stephanie Yao, FDA spokesperson. “The milk sampling has not begun. We want to seek further input on approaches that will help us address, to the extent possible, the concerns that have been raised.”

When the FDA begins showing up at hundreds of American farms, including in Idaho, Yao said they’ll be looking for well-managed dairies.

“A well-managed dairy farm maintains records of each animal treated, what it was treated with, when it was treated and how it was treated,” said Yao. “Such records are used by producers so that they can ensure that treated cows put back into the milking string or sold for slaughter have met appropriate drug withdrawal times in order to prevent illegal drug residues in meat and milk.”

But Yao confirmed that sometimes, inspectors discover problems.

“Yes, the FDA is concerned that the same poor management practices which led to the meat residues may also result in drug residues in milk,” said Yao.

Oakey said his agency is waiting for the FDA’s next move.

“It’s in their court. I can’t speculate on what going to happen,” he said.

Corder said he was convinced that there were numerous behindclosed- door conversations concerning the issue.

“The last thing any Idaho dairyman wants is for someone to read a story in your paper that builds suspicion of people where they don’t buy any more milk or cheese. That’s the very last thing a dairyman wants.”

Corder said he looked forward to more transparency on the issue in the near future. “I suspect that the Dairymen’s Association are trying to plot a course, not around the issue but through the issue.”

A version of this article first appeared in Boise Weekly.

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