As early as February, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will begin random drug testing of unpasteurized milk delivered to 250 dairy processing plants nationally.
The tests, including those at sites in Western New York, will search for the residue of eight types of sulfa drugs and three kinds of tetracycline drugs that the agency says farmers have misused.
Mostly, farmers use the drugs to control udder (mastitis) and lung infections, but at least one of the drugs is used to prevent and/or cure foot infections.
Milk for a long time has been monitored for penicillin-related residues, but the FDA sees its new program as adding another layer of protection for consumers. Because New York is a large dairy producing and consuming state, some of the testing is virtually certain to be conducted here, said Lois Meyer of the FDA's Buffalo office. The Buffalo office has jurisdiction over 53 of the state's 62 counties, but specific test sites have not been determined.
Each week, a milk sample from a bulk tank will be drawn from five of the 250 designated locations. Chromatography detection methods will be employed to determine the presence of residues. Detection methods commonly used in the past can identify substances in ratios of parts per million, but chromatography can detect them in parts per billion.
The FDA announcement indicated that state health authorities will collect milk samples from bulk tanks to test for residues from trace levels to amounts that violate acceptable standards. If the tests are positive, state, county and local authorities will be notified for punitive or educational purposes.
The program began a year ago after a consumer organization and the Wall Street Journal said residues had been found in milk sold at a number of locations. None was reported to have been found in Western New York.
"We have constantly advised members to avoid using anti-biotics in a manner that would leave residues," said Frank Buzzelli, assistant to the president of the Niagara Milk Cooperative (Wendt's Dairy). "And we never had reports of residues from our milk."
Rep. Ted Weiss, D-N.Y. has taken an active interest in the milk residue issue. He said recently that he was not satisfied with the extent of the testing. But an FDA spokesman replied that the test program that amounts to a once-a-year check of each station was all that the FDA's resources could support.
The FDA and the General Accounting Office of Congress both have indicated their belief that milk sold in the United States is safe. Last April at a food safety conference at Cornell University, Dr. John Hotchkiss, a food scientist, declared that contrary to consumer perception, research has shown that chemical residues in foods pose only a minor threat to the health of consumers.
Some people fear that the bacteria the drugs control in animals develop resistances that might render the drugs useless in treating human diseases.
One sulfa drug, sulfmethazine, is considered a carcinogen when large doses are administered to laboratory mice.