WASHINGTON -- In response to persistent criticism from Congress and consumer groups about veterinary drug residues in milk, the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday that starting early next year it will begin the first national program for regular random testing of milk.
The aim of the new program will be to detect antibiotics and sulfa drugs. The agency said that it has chosen 250 of the largest milk processing plants around the country and that beginning as early as February it will randomly draw samples each week from milk tanker trucks arriving at five of the plants from dairy farms.
The move was welcomed by the dairy industry but was denounced as insufficient by a leading consumer group and by a frequent critic of the federal agency, Representative Ted Weiss, D-N.Y.
Dr. Gerald B. Guest, director of the agency's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said the government was most concerned about milk contain
ing eight types of sulfa drugs and three types of tetracycline, all of which are widely used by dairy farmers to fight bacterial infections of the lungs and udders in their animals.
These drugs are currently legal for use in dairy animals. But the government bars all except one of them from being present in a cow's system when it is giving milk. The only exception is sulfadimethoxine, whose concentrations in milk are limited by federal regulation.
The drugs have been widely detected in earlier spot surveys of milk. At least one of them, sulfamethazine, has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals when administered in large doses.
Until now, the burden of testing milk for safety has fallen on the states and the dairy industry itself.
"The states look primarily for penicillin and penicillin-like drugs. We're going to use new detection methods to look for other drugs, because they aren't being routinely looked for and they have the potential for being widely used," Dr. Guest said.
A spokesman for the National Milk Producers Federation in Alexandria, Va., said farmers supported the new testing program.
But Representative Weiss said the new project was an insignificant attempt to quell public anxiety about the safety of milk.
"Testing five milk samples per week means that each processing location in FDA's program will be visited only once a year," Mr. Weiss said. "FDA's attempt to describe this as a nationwide program is ludicrous."