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Responding to consumer concerns about possible chemical residues in milk, the Food and Drug Administration said Thursday it would begin regular, nationwide tests of the dairy supply.

It will monitor raw milk at 250 sites, beginning in early 1991, to detect possible animal drug residues. "It's just another level of protection," said FDA spokeswoman Bonnie Aikman. "It's not a widely extensive test. The key and critical test is still the one states do."

She said the FDA believes U.S. milk is safe. However, congressional and private reports released in the past year have questioned the purity of the nation's milk supply.

A General Accounting Office report issued in November said regulators check for only a limited number of the 53 different drugs approved for use on dairy cattle.

Tests will be conducted for eight sulfa drugs and three tetracyclines that are most widely misused by farmers. One milk sample will be collected each week at five of the selected sites. If harmful residues are found, state officials will be notified and the FDA will help them trace the problem.

The program marks the first time the FDA has been directly involved in routine milk testing. States will still continue to conduct their regular tests, which are designed to detect penicillin and penicillin-related residues in milk.

Some health experts say they fear that antibiotic traces in the food supply trigger the growth of bacteria strains that are resistant to these drugs, and later can cause illness and even death in humans.

Debate over the safety of the milk supply began last year when the Wall Street Journal and the Center for Science in the Public Interest said their own surveys of off-the-shelf milk supplies from around the country turned up drug traces in 38 and 20 percent of samples, respectively.

A follow-up FDA study said the "milk supply does not contain unsafe drug residues," although later tests showed low levels of sulfa drugs in a majority of the FDA samples.

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