What's in your Milk?
13 Investigates has discovered hundreds of dairies have been breaking laws designed to keep antibiotics and other drugs out of our food supply. Dairy farmers say the problem is not widespread, but federal regulators worry that high levels of drug residue showing up in dairy cows' meat might also be contaminating milk – and they're now considering a controversial new testing program to find out.
It's a letter that no dairy farmer wants to find in his mailbox, and Tony Bos still remembers the day he received his.
"I remembering looking at it and thinking 'uh oh,'" said the third-generation diary man, who operates one of the largest dairy farms in Indiana. "I was upset and thought ‘which one of my guys messed up and what am I gonna do now?"
The letter was a warning notice from the US Food and Drug Administration, informing Bos that one of his dairy cows was found to be "adulterated." The cow had been shipped to slaughter months earlier, and random drug testing by the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service detected the cow's tissue contained illegal levels of the antibiotic sulfadimethoxine. Federal regulators found the medication -- commonly used on farms to treat cows with respiratory disease, gastrointestinal infections or foot rot -- at more than seven times the FDA's established safe limit.
"Unfortunately accidents happen. It was accident," Bos explained.
Accidents like that one are shining an intense spotlight on the dairy industry's management of antibiotics, painkillers and other drugs used in dairy cattle, and raising questions about whether additional testing is needed to protect the nation's milk supply.
Looking for drugs
Indiana is home to approximately 170,000 dairy cows. Each year, those cows produce 34 million gallons of milk -- enough to fill 6,000 tanker trucks. And all of it is tested for safety long before it gets to your grocery store.
"We test each tanker load of milk before it's unloaded and processed. That's the state regulation," explained Debbie Hall, a laboratory evaluation officer who oversees milk testing for the Indiana Board of Animal Health.
Hall specifically looks for milk that contains unsafe levels of antibiotics.
"We're looking for the drugs used most often on the farm which are the penicillin family. The same things would give to your children if they're sick -- penicillin, amoxicillin, ampicillin -- those are the drugs that are most used for cows if they're sick, too," said Hall.
Many farmers say those antibiotics are crucial.
Bos, for example, uses penicillin and other antibiotics to treat his sick cows, and says at any given time, about 1% of his herd needs medication to treat potentially fatal infections.
"I wish I didn't ever have to use them but I do. Antibiotics are necessary to help keep the cows alive and get them better," Bos said.
"There is a risk"
But those same antibiotics can cause problems in humans. Penicillin can trigger serious reactions in those who are allergic to it, and overexposure to antibiotics makes the drugs less effective in fighting off infection. Over-prescribing antibiotics – in people and farm animals – has been blamed for a dramatic increase in the number of drug-resistant bacteria and resulting illnesses that do not respond to traditional treatment from antibiotics.
A recent study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases showed half of supermarket meat tested by researchers contained drug-resistant staph bacteria, and much of that bacteria was resistant to at least three separate classes of antibiotics used to treat skin, blood and respiratory infections in people.
"Whenever you use antibiotics, there's always some sort of resistance development," said Paul Ebner, an animal sciences professor at Purdue University. "It's just a consequence of using the drugs. There is a risk."
To reduce the risk, cows that are taking antibiotics are often separated from the rest of their herd and marked with a special tag. Their milk cannot be legally processed until the drugs have cleared their system. Most Indiana dairy farmers follow those rules very carefully.
According to IBOAH, thousands of Indiana milk shipments are tested each year with few violations. 13 Investigates checked the inspections.
Breaking the rules
Through the Indiana Access to Public Records Act, WTHR obtained a copy of all milk residue violations reported to IBOAH in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The reports show 87 Indiana diary farms were caught selling milk that contained excessive levels of antibiotic drug residues in violation of state and federal law. That means during the past three years, inspectors cited about 6% of the state's 1324 Grade A dairy farms for breaking rules designed to keep antibiotics out of milk.
"It's not supposed to happen, but when it does we have a plan in place to take care of it," said Hall. "That milk we are finding is positive [for high levels of antibiotics] is being taken out of the food chain. It's being dumped in lagoons and it's not being consumed by anyone. I think we should look at it as the system is working."
But critics point out that system tests for only a few antibiotics, largely ignoring dozens of other drugs used on dairy farms.
Some of those drugs are showing up in dairy cows in extremely high levels, according to a federal report obtained by Eyewitness News.
USDA's dubious Drug Residue Violator List details dairy farms (as well as beef, veal, hog and other farms) that sent a cow to slaughter while it had an illegal level of drugs in its body. Unlike FDA and state regulators who usually look for four to six antibiotics in milk, USDA inspectors check meat for dozens of drugs as part of the federal government's mandated inspection program. It means many of the drug residue violations that show up on UDSA's list involve potent pain killers, antibiotics and other drugs that state inspectors are not even looking for.
"No, we're not looking for those [drugs] on a regular basis," Hall admitted. "There may need to be some changes in drugs that are being tested for."
Sixteen Indiana dairy farms are currently on USDA's Drug Residue Violator List.
Bos Dairy in Fair Oaks, Irish Acres Farm in Berne and Newberry Farms in Demotte were cited for illegal levels of sulfadimethoxine.
Seven dairy farms, including Mike McCoy's farm in Columbia City, failed USDA testing due to excessive amounts of flunixin, an anti-inflammatory drug that must be administered to cows intraveneously. McCoy says he had mistakenly been giving the drug with a syringe instead, resulting in one of his slaughtered cows testing six times the legal limit for flunixin.
"We're working with a veterinarian right now to get a protocol," he told WTHR, downplaying the possibility of any public health risk. "Flunixin is pretty much like aspirin and it's legal. If a cow is under the weather or sluggish, we give her flunixin to pep her up – like if you had a headache to make you feel better so can go shopping. We're pretty upset we got caught for a drug like aspirin."
"You can't get rid of it"
Other farms earned a spot on USDA's violator list for using drugs that aren't supposed to be given to dairy cows at all.
Williamson Dairy in Frankton was added to the list two months ago for using the drug tilmicosin, and federal inspectors cited Indiana dairy farmers John Schwartz and Bob Osborn after they found cows tainted with gentamicin. Both drugs are powerful antibiotics used to treat pneumonia, and both have an acceptable detectable tolerance level of zero established by USDA.
"There is absolutely no reason to give a cow gentamicin because the withdrawal time is about two years," said Hall. "I don't even know where they're getting it because veterinarians aren't prescribing it any more."
Schwartz, a veteran dairy farmer who houses 30 cows on his farm in South Whitley, told Eyewitness News he stopped using gentamicin following his USDA violation. "I didn't know it stays in them a long time and you can't get rid of it, and I didn't know I wasn't supposed to use it at all in the dairy cows," he said. "We just don't have it anymore."
For years, USDA has published its Drug Residue Violator List online, adding new violators to the document weekly. That changed a few weeks ago, and the full list of violators is no longer available on the agency's website. According to USDA, dairy insiders requested that the list of first-time violators not be made public, and that federal regulators publish only the names of those farmers who violate federal drug residue rules multiple times within a 12-month period.
"I was told by my boss the list needed to be simplified and this is what the industry requested," explained a USDA representative who asked not to be identified. "The comments we were receiving from the industry was the list is too long."
Asked to explain who was being referred to as "the industry," the representative responded "Primarily people who represent the dairy trade associations, the farmers and producers."
As the dairy industry requested, USDA has stopped publishing a list of all dairy farms that violate drug residue laws, replacing its 163-page list of recent offenders with a much smaller list of repeat-offenders. No Indiana farms appear on the current repeat-violator list.
Hoosier dairy farmers like Samuel Schwartz, who were cited for a single drug residue violation within the past twelve months, say their violation was the result of human error.
"I'm not perfect. I make mistakes," said Samuel, who sold a dairy cow for slaughter with more than four times the legal limit of penicillin in its kidneys. "I didn't wait the right withhold. I gave that cow a shot and it was my fault. It was my mistake."
Are those mistakes putting our nation's milk supply at risk?
FDA wants to find out.
New testing program
The agency is now proposing an expanded milk testing program that would test milk for 26 different drugs instead of six.
The proposal is clearly triggered by what the agency considers to be disturbing drug residue results collected by USDA from slaughtered dairy cows. FDA describes the topic as an "important potential public health issue."
Although only 7.7% of the cattle slaughtered in the United States are adult dairy cattle, they represent 67% of the tissue residue violations reported by USDA over the past five years, according to FDA.
In a letter sent to Eyewitness News, the agency says "FDA is concerned that the same poor management practices which led to the meat residues may also result in drug residues in milk." And the agency says it will "specifically target those dairies with a history of drug residue violations."
The proposed milk testing program set off a firestorm of reaction.
Top agriculture officials from ten states across the Northeast sent a joint letter expressing "grave concerns" about the design and appropriateness of the FDA plan. The state agriculture commissioners and secretaries alleged FDA "rolled out this program without duly consulting the state regulatory agencies," and they told federal officials the program might prove financially damaging to farmers, dairy processors and consumers.
Most dairy farmers interviewed by Eyewitness News oppose the FDA program.
"Pain in the butt" for farmers
"It's gonna be a pain in the butt," said Bos, who feels nervous that his 2010 drug residue violation might make him a target for more stringent testing. As part of his violation, he received a warning letter from FDA that said "our investigation found … you hold animals under conditions that are so inadequate that medicated animals bearing potentially harmful drug residues are likely to enter the food supply."
"I can't afford to have another positive [drug residue test]," Bos told WTHR. "I think it's overreacting. It was a mistake and … I don't want the FDA here crawling on my back making sure I'm doing everything right all the time. I've worked with them and my veterinarian to make sure all my protocols are better than they used to be."
Johan DeGroot Jr. also believes the FDA's proposed milk testing program is unnecessary.
"We're always being tested and we work closely with our veterinarian to make changes when there's a problem," said DeGroot, operator of Sunshine Dairy in Andrews. DeGroot was cited last year for USDA violations involving excessive levels of flunixin, penicillin and sulfadimethoxine.
Now, instead of maintaining medication records on a notepad, he logs every drug given to a dairy cow into a computer database.
"If it's a hormone, a vaccine, penicillin, anything, everything gets entered into the computer," he said. "I've been keeping more records to show I've done everything I'm supposed to do."
The dairy industry argues drug residue mistakes are rare and affect only a tiny fraction of the nation's dairy cows. But some dairy experts – and even some farmers – say additional drug screenings would be beneficial.
A good idea?
"I think it's something we need to do. As an industry, we need to be transparent," said Jonathan Townsend, a veterinarian and assistant professor of dairy production/medicine at Purdue University.
Townsend believes the dairy industry does an "overwhelmingly good job" in limiting drug residues in milk, but he says more can be done to prevent repeat violations. "When they happen, it's usually just a mistake within the farm. But it means our plan to prevent that from happening has fallen through, there's been a mistake in the system and the system has failed," he explained. "If there's a problem and we don't know about it, we can't fix it, so having a chance to test some more, I think it's a good idea."
Mike McCoy said dairy farmers who follow the government's drug residue rules should have nothing to fear by expanded FDA testing.
"I have no problem with it. I want our industry … watched so it doesn't get a bad rap," said McCoy, adding that his 2010 drug residue violation was the first he had received in 35 years of dairy farming.
WTHR contacted the Indiana State Dairy Association to include its perspective on the FDA's proposal for more extensive milk testing. An association spokesman declined to comment. http://www.ansc.purdue.edu/dairy/isda/
"I don't have any comment on that," said ISDA executive secretary Bob Albrecht. " Asked if the state association was tracking news of the proposed milk testing program or offering any input or comments to FDA, Albrecht replied "No. We haven't really dealt with that. We don't really deal with the milk. We work with the farmers."
FDA had planned to begin its milk sampling program in January, but has delayed implementation while it receives input from states and the dairy industry.
A sticking point of the program is how the testing will be conducted.
Current testing for antibiotics such as penicillin can be completed with a rapid screening test that takes eight minutes to complete. Many of the drugs the FDA wants to look for as part of its new milk sampling assignment have no rapid screening test available. The testing could take a week or longer to complete, which would leave dairies and processors in limbo while the results are pending. Some processors have said they would dump milk that is targeted for FDA testing rather than risk the potential of a recall should the milk later be found to contain high levels of drug residue.
Farmers worry they would, therefore, be forced to dump millions of gallons of good milk while FDA investigators conduct their testing.
"I could see where it could put a producer out of business," said Hall.
But an expanded testing program to help ensure drugs are kept out of milk will likely begin within several months, according to a source at FDA.
"I like it," said Elizabeth Hunt, a Brownsburg mother whose three children drink about two gallons of milk each week. "I'd prefer they test for those things. I think I would pay a little bit more if I had the peace of mind to know that what I was drinking was what I should be drinking."
While the FDA figures out details of its new program, families looking to limit potential exposure to drugs and antibiotics in milk should look closely at milk labels while at the grocery store.
Antibiotic-free milk will include a statement such as "from cows not treated with antibiotics." Milk that claims "no hormones" does not necessarily mean it comes from antibiotic-free cows.