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MEXICO: Keeping Traces of Antibiotics Out of Food

Emilio Godoy

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MEXICO CITY, Feb 22, 2012 (IPS) - Orange juice and beef form part of the diet of many people in Mexico and other countries of the Americas. But the traces of antibiotics and fungicides they can contain pose risks to human health, and authorities in the region have begun to address the problem.

In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a ban on "extralabel" or unapproved uses of cephalosporin antimicrobial drugs in cattle, swine, chickens and turkeys as of April 2012.

As a result, Mexico will be forced to gradually eliminate the use of this class of antimicrobial drugs in order to continue to export its products to markets like the United States, where the Food Safety Modernisation Act (FSMA) was signed into law in January 2011 by President Barack Obama.

The FSMA law created the foreign supplier verification programme, which requires importers to provide assurances that imported products comply with safety standards and are not adulterated or misbranded.

"While the law would make great progress towards making the American food supply safer, if the implementation of FSMA is not fully funded, people may be put needlessly at risk," Erik Olson, director of food programmes at the U.S.-based Pew Health Group, told IPS.

Cattle in Mexico, which has a total herd of 25 million head according to the ministry of agriculture, receive large doses of antibiotics like penicillin, tetracycline and cephalosporins to prevent bacterial infections.

FDA statistics show that 13.1 million kilograms of antibacterial drugs were sold in the U.S. for use on animals in 2009, while the amount for 2010 was just one percent less.

The most widely used antibiotic in 2009 was tetracycline (4.6 million kg). In the case of cephalosporins, 41,000 kg were sold for use in animals.

Mexico’s ministry of agriculture has a manual for good livestock practices regarding raising beef in feedlots, which recommends only using registered medications, not using approved combinations of medicines, and using narrow spectrum antimicrobials to treat a specific disease whenever possible.

In addition, regulations for the National Animal Identification System are pending approval. The system, which covers cattle, sheep, goats, horses, swine and bees, will provide for complete traceability of animals and products.

A number of scientific studies have found traces of drugs in animal products. One example is the study "Evaluación de la presencia de residuos de antibióticos y quimioterapéuticos en leche en Jalisco, México" (Evaluation of the presence of antibiotic and chemotherapy residues in milk in Jalisco, Mexico), published in 2009 in the Revista de Salud Animal (Animal Health Journal).

The study was carried out in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, the country’s leading milk producer.

"It can be concluded that there is a problem of contamination with antimicrobials in the milk consumed in Jalisco," in violation of the country’s regulations, says the study by five researchers at the Centro Universitario de Ciencias Biológicas y Agropecuarias (University Centre on Biological and Agricultural Sciences) of the University of Guadalajara.

Of the 264 samples analysed, 26 (9.8 percent) had residues of antimicrobial drugs, and 77 percent of the samples that tested positive for traces had at least one sulphonamide.

The researchers took samples of milk from 10 collection centres and 12 brands of pasteurised whole milk sold in the city of Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, and three municipalities in the state between June 2007 and May 2008.

Mexico produces more than 10 billion litres of milk a year, according to ministry of agriculture figures.

Authorities in the U.S. have also set their sights on orange juice this year, after detaining shipments from Brazil and Canada that tested positive for the fungicide carbendazim.

Spraying of the fungicide on citrus fruits has been illegal in the United States since 2009, although traces are allowed in products like paint, textiles, adhesives and ornamental plants.

Carbendazim is frequently used in Mexico, where some four million tons of oranges are harvested a year. Other toxic chemicals used on citrus crops are organophosphates like parathion-methyl, malathion, ethion and diazinon.

"If Mexico continues to opt for the use of chemicals, it is constantly going to face this kind of problem," Fernando Bejarano, director of the Centro de Análisis y Acción sobre Tóxicos y Sus Alternativas (Centre for Analysis and Action on Toxic Substances and Their Alternatives - CAATA), told IPS.

"Mexico should shift to a policy of non-chemical controls," he told IPS. But he said the country "is suffering from this neoliberal policy, and has allowed the market to impose its products, and agroecological alternatives have been pushed to the margins."

The International Programme on Chemical Safety, a cooperative programme of the World Health Organisation, International Labour Organisation and U.N. Environment Programme, says the fungicide can remain in the soil for up to three years.

The Red de Acción en Plaguicidas y sus Alternativas en América Latina (a member of the international Pesticide Action Network) says carbendazim is a possible carcinogen.

The European Union has established maximum residue limits for the fungicide in citrus fruit ranging between 100 and 700 ppb (parts per billion).

In a letter sent in January to the Juice Products Association, the FDA urged the industry to make sure that foreign suppliers refrain from using carbendazim on orange crops.

However, these issues are not addressed by the National Strategy for Sustainable Production and Consumption that the Mexican government is drafting.

"We have not had feedback from the ministry of agriculture or from industry," Eduardo Garza, assistant director of sustainable production in the environment ministry, told IPS.

Olson, meanwhile, said "We expect U.S. and Mexican government officials to work closely together to implement this and other import-related provisions of the law.

"I believe the FSVP (foreign supplier verification programme) and other import-related provisions of the new law, if fully implemented, will help to give American consumers greater confidence in the safety of imported food," he added. (END)