FDA study finds illegal antibiotics in milk

Detail view of milk cartons amidst dairy section in a supermarketMixed emotions are stemming from a recent report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that has revealed antibiotics in a small number of milk samples coming from dairy farms across the U.S.

Drug residues immediately appear in cow’s milk, which makes using antibiotics on lactating cows a violation of food safety rules set by the FDA. Cows can only receive antibiotics when they are actually sick, and farmers must discard their milk for several days until the residues disappear. This is different from other animals such as pigs, cattle or chickens that are raised for their meat.

Prior to sale, milk shipments are tested for six of the most widely used antibiotics, and any samples that test positive are rejected.  However, what is most concerning about this study is that the antibiotics found in the samples are not a part of the standard testing, and in some cases the antibiotics seen in the tests are illegal for dairy farmers to use.

According to a recent article on the study, the FDA looked for 31 different drugs in milk samples from almost 2,000 dairy farms. About half of the farms — the “targeted” group — had come under suspicion for sending cows to slaughter that turned out to have drug residues in their meat. The other farms were a random sample of all milk producers.

The study found that just over 1% of the samples from the “targeted” group, and 0.4% of the randomly collected samples, contained drug residues. An antibiotic called Florfenicol was the most common drug detected, but five other drugs also turned up. None of the drugs that the FDA detected are approved for use in lactating dairy cows.

However, because the survey was carried out for research purposes, the samples were collected anonymously, and the FDA cannot send investigators to the farms to find more information.

According to Mike Apley, a researcher at Kansas State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, two of the drugs that were detected, Ciproflaxacin and Sulfamethazine, are “totally illegal” for dairy farmers to use. He also notes in the article that the situation gets more complicated because some of the other drugs detected are illegal for farmers to use on their own, but veterinarians are allowed to authorize their use in dairy cows under certain strict conditions.

Veterinarians also are supposed to ensure that no residues enter the food supply but as stated in the article, that veterinary safeguard didn’t work in these cases.

Dr. William Flynn, deputy director for science policy in the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, chose to focus on the fact that the violations were uncommon saying in the article that, “these are encouraging findings,” and that the low number of violations indicates that “things are working well.”

Morgan Scott, a veterinary epidemiologist at Texas A&M University, commented that because a small number of farmers are being reckless with the use of these antibiotics in their cows, it could end up imposing substantial costs on all other dairy farmers.

“That, to me, is tragic, that some farmers don’t think that keeping the reputation of the industry intact is a priority.”

In another article, the FDA said it will consider modifying testing samples of milk supplies from farms that have been found with illegal drug residues in their dairy cows. The agency also plans to work with regulators to update the milk testing program to include a greater diversity of drugs.

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