A proposed regulation by the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) that would require meatpackers to toss an entire carcass if related organs contained unacceptably high levels of residue is akin to throwing the baby out with the proverbial bath water, critics of the rule contend.

"Residue control is important in ensuring a safe supply of meat and poultry products," FSIS administrator Thomas J. Billy noted last August, when FSIS unveiled the regulation. "FSIS is continuously working to improve residue control measures. By working together with industry and other government agencies, we will be able to provide a more wholesome food supply."

Not so fast, say industry members, who laud FSIS's decision to post a list of livestock or poultry sellers with repeat residue violations on the agency's home page, but oppose condemning entire animal carcasses if violative levels of chemical residue are found in target tissues.

Previously, if FSIS found an illegal drug residue in the kidney or liver, it would perform subsequent tests on muscle tissue to determine if they too contained illegal residues. If no illegal residues were detected, the carcass would be processed.

The American Meat Institute (AMI) is among the industry associations opposing the discontinuation of follow-up tests on muscle tissue, arguing that under current FSIS policy only 6.5 percent of carcasses with violative residue levels in an organ had any residue in the muscle tissue. "This notice...will not enhance the public health; it only serves harm entities that are not responsible for the presence of inappropriate drug residue levels in animals used for food," AMI said in comments filed to FSIS in September.

"There is no legitimate reason for FSIS to condemn these carcasses," said AMI general counsel Mark Dopp. "AMI members are dedicated to providing safe products to consumers, but this policy does nothing new to achieve that goal."

AMI also noted that the agency's new policy conflicts with the position of the Codex Alimentarius, a well-respected international food standards body that has set tolerance levels for drug residues in muscle tissue where even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet established tolerances.

Meanwhile, the American Association of Meat Processors (AAMP) complained to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that the rule would "put more burdens on meat and poultry slaughterers and processors - for no good reasons." AAMP estimated that as many as 25 percent of all healthy animals could end up being "thrown away for no reason," resulting in "massive costs" being incurred by meatpackers.

"FSIS has not shown anywhere in [its] notice that this change in policy is needed," according to AAMP's statement. "And if no change is needed, why would FSIS make it? There has been no cost/benefit analysis done. FSIS hasn't shown there would be any benefit to changing the policy, in exchange for the money that would be spent. The agency has not been able to demonstrate with any scientific evidence that this change in policy will prevent illegal drug residues in meat."

AAMP also pointed out that "producers, not slaughterers and processors, bear the ultimate responsibility for drug and chemical residues in carcasses. After all, the vet gives the drugs to animals at the farm, not at the slaughterhouse. Slaughterers and processors don't have the opportunity to buy cattle that have been checked ahead of time for drugs. And under the law, the slaughterer must pay for the livestock he buys before the close of business the day after the sale."

FSIS has stated that it proposal would "harmonize" its residue detection policies with those of FDA.

At press time, FSIS had tentatively agreed to re-open comments on the residue detection proposal, which closed initially on Sept. 5.