Federal officials say thousands of veal calves may have been illegally given hormones to make them grow faster.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday instructed its veterinarians to immediately remove from the food chain any calves showing signs of such adulteration.
''We consider this an illegal activity. It's against our law to give animals drugs that are not approved for them,'' says Stephen Sundlof, head veterinarian at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The drug use came to light when a sharp-eyed veterinarian with the USDA spotted a suspicious lump in the ear of a veal calf in Wisconsin. The lump turned out to be an implant that was slowly releasing hormones into the animal's bloodstream.
Such ear implants are used as growth enhancers in adult cattle but are not supposed to be used in veal calves, which are slaughtered at 12 to 23 weeks old. The young calves may eliminate the drugs more slowly or metabolize them differently.
''We don't know how these drugs behave in animals for which we haven't approved them,'' Sundlof says.
About 1 million veal calves are slaughtered in the USA each year. Sources within the USDA say there's concern that the use of such illegal growth enhancers might be widespread, but an actual count is not yet available.
Sundlof cautions that the public shouldn't be alarmed. Though the FDA doesn't know how the hormones are metabolized in calves, it has long experience with the drugs in adult cattle and does not consider them a danger to the beef-eating public.
The USDA and FDA have launched an investigation and are awaiting tests on the implant found in Wisconsin to confirm what hormone it contained.
Both agencies are involved because the USDA deals with food safety and the FDA with animal drugs.
It is thought to most likely be trenbolone acetate, a synthetic steroid often given in conjunction with estrogen to increase growth and muscle composition in cattle.
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