Farm animals the world over are pumped full of drugs—antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, steroids—in order to keep them healthy and get meat and dairy to market quickly. But by the time you're putting fork to pork or burger to mouth, there should be only minimal traces remaining of any antibiotics or other drugs. In an unwelcome surprise, some dairy cows that were being slaughtered for meat tested positive for controlled substances at levels more than five times the legal limits.
The US Food and Drug Administration recently sent warning letters to Morwai Dairy of Fort Lupton, Colorado and Robin Martin of Snover, Michigan because the dairy cows they sent to slaughter were allegedly hopped up on meds. At Morwai, an FDA investigation in April found that a cow slaughtered back in January contained more than 2 parts per million of one antibiotic and 0.67 parts per million of an anti-inflammatory drug, when the legal limits are 0.4 and 0.125 parts per million, respectively.
On the other hand, Martin's cow, slaughtered in July of last year, had chemical residue that indicated the presence of an antibiotic at 5.4 parts per million, more than 13 times the 0.4 parts per million allowed. By FDA guidelines, the beef from both Martin and Morwai was "adulterated." Morwai also got in trouble for failing to keep track of drug records for a specific cow. The companies were notified that they have 15 days to address the FDA's concerns.
Around the world, the use of antibiotics in livestock is poised to skyrocket thanks to soaring demand for meat. And while the idea of a cow pumped full of antibiotics doesn't exactly make for pleasant eating, know that what we deal with stateside is nothing compared to the wholesale mass-drugging of livestock over in China. There, animals are pumped full of many of our strongest and best human-grade antibiotics regardless of whether there is an actual need for them. The widespread overprescription of antibiotics to farm animals is leaving humans vulnerable to drug-resistant "superbugs," for which there are no cures.
But there's a glimmer of hope for the dairy industry: New research suggests that there may be a way to produce better milk without all the drugs. A study recently published in the Journal of Endocrinology found that "happy" cows actually produce nutritious milk. Turns out your farmers market hippie is probably right.
In the meantime, here's your public service announcement of the day: Beware of drugs in cheeseburgers.