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Probe Links Toxic Drug to Some Veal Producers : Food: U.S. officials say clenbuterol, an illegal substance that promotes calves' growth, has been smuggled in from Europe. No charges have been filed.

October 14, 1994|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In recent months, federal agents have conducted at least a dozen raids on companies involved in domestic veal production in which they seized evidence that an illegal--and highly toxic--drug is being used on calves to artificially promote the animals' growth, according to documents filed by the investigators in federal courts.

The criminal investigation by agents of the Customs Service, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration is focused on the use of the drug clenbuterol, allegedly smuggled in from Europe.

No charges have yet been filed against veal producers or feed manufacturers. The documents--including search warrants and affidavits from agents--have been filed in support of U.S. attorneys in several states who are seeking indictments in the investigation.

Unannounced searches have taken place and evidence has been seized from facilities in leading veal-producing states, including Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, according to the records.

While the number of searches--12--is small compared to the number of domestic veal producers--1,200--the probe is nevertheless significant because it also is targeting feed producers who supply major portions of the industry.

The federal government has not sought to publicize the investigation and has not issued any advisories discouraging veal consumption. No illnesses have been reported in connection with clenbuterol-treated veal in the United States.

"We regard this more as a smuggling issue than anything else," said John Dietrich, executive director of the American Veal Assn. in Naperville, Ill. "We view this as involving only a few alleged perpetrators that are out on their own. As an association, we do not condone the misuse of compounds or the illegal use of anything."

According to the records, federal agents believe that the illegal trafficking in clenbuterol extends back to 1989. The drug--which was developed as a medicine for pets or other animals not consumed by humans--expands calves' lung capacity and helps develop muscle tissue at the expense of fat. It also enhances anemia in the calves, producing more expensive white meat.

Veal calves can be given the drug through liquid feed, by spray or by injection. Animals treated with clenbuterol can be brought to market in 12 to 13 weeks rather than the standard 16 weeks.

Calves are taken off the drug 14 days before slaughter so that the substance can work its way through their system, according to veterinarians and government officials familiar with the process. The drug accumulates in the calves' liver but can also be present in flesh. Cooking does not dissipate clenbuterol.

The federal agents say in the documents that even trace amounts of clenbuterol can cause illness in humans. The symptoms, often sudden, include increased heart rate, tremors, headache, dizziness, nausea, fever and chills. In acute cases, breathing interruptions, similar to severe asthma attacks, can occur.

Lester Crawford, the former top USDA meat inspection official and currently executive director of the Assn. of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, said "clenbuterol is an acutely poisonous drug. This stuff should not be on the U.S. market."

In April, the American Veal Assn. sent a memorandum, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, to industry members saying "the ongoing federal investigation continues to focus on use of unapproved and illegal animal health care compounds. Our sources advised us there may yet be another 'hit' on the veal industry."

According to the association memo, members were urged to operate within the existing laws and regulations "to avoid further issues that can have a devastating, or potential ruinous, impact to the industry."

Use of clenbuterol has been widespread in European livestock operations, according to food industry trade journals, even though the drug is also outlawed there. More than 1,000 illnesses, virtually all of which required emergency hospitalization, have been traced to clenbuterol poisoning in European Union nations. To date, there have been at least five deaths linked to the drug. The largest poisoning incident--with 140 victims--occurred earlier this year in Spain and was traced to consumption of both calves' liver and veal, according to a European agriculture journal.

Clenbuterol, according to the court records, is manufactured by Pricor Trade Co., a Audewater, Netherlands-based firm, and is being shipped into the United States hidden among legal animal feed compounds.

A Pricor subsidiary, Vitek Supply Corp. in Oak Grove, Wis., has been the target of two federal raids. Vitek, which manufactures animal feeds, was searched in February and again in April. Files, computer records, invoices, bank statements, chemical compounds and feed mixtures were seized, according to the warrants.

Vitek officials said Thursday that the company's president, John Doppenberg, was traveling and was not available for comment.

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