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Federal government acts against Galt veal operation

Virtue Calves given severe warning after inspectors find illegal amounts of drug residue in meat

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Posted: Wednesday, July 6, 2011 10:23 am | Updated: 6:11 am, Thu Jul 7, 2011.

Along a hot, empty road on the outskirts of Galt, Virtue Calves seems isolated from the rest of the world, save for the hundred or so calves that lounge in a corral behind a quiet home.

The veal operation, run by John Virtue and his daughter Shannon, was recently slapped with a severe warning from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after federal inspectors found illegal amounts of drug residue in meat from the operation.

John Virtue, who began the company in 1995, and his daughter have been administered repeated warnings over the years for failing to comply with a section of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act which specifically states that no drug residues can be found in meat purchased or sold for use as human food.

In addition to having calves that are considered contaminated for meat processing, Virtue failed to keep complete and accurate records regarding which calves had been medicated and which calves were purchased and sold to other vendors, which violated another section of the act, according to court documents.

Now, to avoid further violations as well as serious fines, the Virtues must comply with a specific list of requirements set by attorneys for at least the next 60 months, according to court documents.

Among the list of requirements, the Virtues must maintain a thorough record-keeping system of his calves, including purchases and sales. They must also keep records of which calves were medicated or non-medicated and if calves are sold that their buyers know whether or not the animals may have drugs in their systems, court documents stated.

Court documents also revealed that should the Virtues fail to comply with these requirements, they face $1,000 fines for each day they fail to comply with the decree and an additional fine of $5,000 for each animal that the Virtues sell, deliver, distribute or hold for sale that is in violation of the agreement.

Violations at Virtue Calves date as far back as 1995, according to court documents. Between 1995 and 2009, court documents show that 17 tissue samples taken from calves at Virtue’s operation were identified as having drug residues well beyond the legal limit. In 2010, 10 tissue samples were contaminated.

Though John Virtue first admitted that he failed to keep proper records of his operation in 1997, federal inspectors only warned him that if he failed to do so, he could face further scrutiny and fines.

In a November 2010 inspection, John Virtue is quoted in court documents as saying that he realized he was not meeting some standards.

“Mr. Virtue confirmed that he was not in compliance and told FDA investigators that he was too busy with his business to commit to taking the measures necessary to prevent veal calves with illegal drug residues from entering the food supply.”

The FDA did not take any action against the Virtues until June 22, 2011, when they filed a complaint of permanent injunction — a final order of a court that a person or entity refrain from certain activities permanently or take certain actions immediate to correct those wrongful activities.

No phone number could be found for the Virtues, and despite repeated visits by the News-Sentinel to Virtue Calves on Wednesday, no one was available for comment.

“A majority of the drugs found in calves that were tested were not even supposed to be in the calves at all,” said Catherine Swann, an assistant U.S. attorney who worked on the case. “How (the drugs) got in the calves’ systems is a mystery. Either way, it’s unsafe for consumers to have those drugs in their meat.”

According to court documents, Virtue and his daughter purchase calves from dairy farms and livestock auctions in Northern and Central California and then sell veal calves to either calf raisers or send veal calves to a slaughter facility in California to be processed for human consumption.

Court documents also showed that the slaughter facility the Virtues sell their veal calves to processes the meat and ships it other states including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, New York and other areas outside California.

Consuming the meat will not necessarily make people physically sick, said Janet McDonald, spokesperson for the Pacific Region of the FDA. Instead, should humans eat the contaminated meat that has drugs or antibiotics in it, the human body can build up a resistance to the drugs that were accidentally consumed.

Should that occur, she said, the body may build up an immunity to antibiotics such as penicillin — one of the drugs found in the calves at Virtue Calves. In the future, people may not be able to be treated for certain infections because their body would not respond properly to drug treatment.

Finding high drug residues in calves is unusual these days, said Bill Cook, vice president of management at Calva Products in Acampo, a company that produces milk formulas and infant animal care products that are used to feed veal calves and other livestock. According to Cook, though it was common practice to medicate livestock years ago, today it is extremely rare.

Cook said if people do choose to medicate their animals to either combat or prevent illness, farmers generally choose to inject the animals with an antibiotic rather than put it in their food.

Cook added that the most likely reason why drugs are found calves’ systems is through milk that is fed to them from sick cows that were pulled from the milking line at the farm. Rather than get rid of the contaminated milk, farmers do not want to waste it so they give it to the calves.

While any drugs in the milk are passed along to calves, drug residues usually disappear within a year and a half after consumption, Cook said.

But such practice is not condoned, Cook stated, and it is better to just dispose of the milk to avoid problems.

Since a consent decree — an agreement between the Virtues and attorneys — was issued June 27, the Virtues were given 15 calendar days to notify all individuals they sold, consigned, distributed, or delivered a veal calf to of the requirements set forth in the court document as well as notify all other individuals related to the case of their compliance.

Also, among other short-term requirements that must be met, the Virtues must reimburse the FDA for the costs of “conducting and evaluating all inspectional, analytical, or other work that FDA deems necessary to evaluate defendants’ compliance with this Decree ... ”

Contact reporter Katie Nelson at katien@lodinews.com.

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