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Forensics for the Farm Keep Food Safe

TV shows like “CSI” have made forensics a hot topic, spawning books and even science programs for kids. The same technology used at crime scenes to link a stray hair to a suspect can also find antibiotics or other medications in milk and meat. And the use of sophisticated testing is becoming increasingly available for livestock producers, who stand to lose lots of money if their products are tainted.

Farmers often treat sick cows with antibiotics, but no one wants to ingest any medicine with their cold glass of milk. Properly treated cows are kept segregated from animals whose milk makes it to the food supply and routine testing aims to keep dairy products safe.

More advanced forensic testing can further reassure farmers and consumers, said Hans Coetzee, a professor at Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine who helps run  veterinary diagnostic lab that uses forensic technology.

”Now and then things happen on production systems where an animal might have inadvertently been exposed to a drug that they shouldn't have received, or there're some quality assurance steps that a veterinarian might want to take to ensure that the animal’s not receiving a medicated feed,” Coetzee said.

The veterinary diagnostic lab uses mass spectrometry to break a sample down and identify even the tiniest components within. Coetzee says veterinarians can submit milk, meat and animal feed samples for testing.

Currently, all milk is tested and the Food and Drug Administration sets tolerance limits. For example, no amount of penicillin is allowed, while .01 parts per million of Amoxicillin is  acceptable in milk or meat. The mass spectrometry allows for detection of even trace amounts—and could also find compounds the FDA doesn’t yet regulate.

Forensic testing may become increasingly important for meat producers who export their products. Other countries may monitor imported food with more exacting tests than what products are subject to here before leaving U.S. borders. Ensuring compliance with foreign regulations on antibiotics will be vital.

“In many cases, they use their testing capabilities as a trade barrier,” Coetzee said. “And so it's very important, especially within the state of Iowa, where export of meat products is an important aspect of our economy, to ensure that the animals that do leave the state meet the requirements of our trading partners.”

The Iowa State lab can match or exceed the international tests.

Coetzee says consumer demand could eventually lead to a domestic market niche for producers who take the extra step  to guarantee their milk contains zero antibiotic residue. For now, the most likely application is testing milk after a mix-up to prevent the kind of problem Brooklyn, Iowa, dairy farmer Dorine Boelen  has had.

“We actually had a problem like a month ago,” Boelen said. A worker on her farm used a medical treatment appropriately, but then failed segregate the cow until the medication was completely flushed from her system.

“He made a mistake and we had antibiotics in our milk,” Boelen said, noting that she doesn’t want t consume antibiotics in milk or cheese, which is what her milk becomes, any more than her customers do. That incident cost Boelen two loads of milk. That kind of contamination could be prevented with forensic testing.

Livestock veterinarian Matthew Boogerd says the testing could also help doctors working with farm animals.

“You’re always going to have human error,” Boogerd said. “Somebody gave something the wrong drug or applied the wrong insect control to the farm. Do we have an issue or not? I guess, those I think are places where it’s a really valuable test.”

Most farmers, he says, are vigilant about using only approved medicines in the intended ways.

“If I had a client that was toeing the line with stuff and I was trying to convince him to stop, this would be a great test for that,” Boogerd said.

And with the increasing attention placed on where food comes from and what’s in it, maybe a future season will be C-S-I: Dairy Barn.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames