Chicken products contaminated with feces aren't 'wholesome'

Chicken products contaminated with feces aren't 'wholesome'
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There is nothing “wholesome” about chicken products contaminated with feces. But as long as feces aren’t visible to the naked eye when chickens are on the inspection line, the U.S. Department of Agriculture slaps a “wholesome” label on them and unwitting consumers are exposed to fecal contaminants, according to testing conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, as well as testing conducted by the Consumer Reports. It dribbles out of the chicken package onto their kitchen counters, cutting boards sponges and taints the other foods they are preparing.

The public deserves to know about this health risk. In 2011, the Physicians Committee sampled 120 chicken products from 15 grocery store chains in 10 U.S. cities; 48 percent showed fecal contamination.

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In 2013, we filed a petition that requested USDA remove the “wholesome” label from poultry, add a label to disclose the presence of feces on meat and poultry products, and regulate feces as an adulterant under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.

But six years have passed with no reply or action from USDA. If anything, the federal government has been interested in weakening inspection regulations and speeding up slaughter lines. Earlier this week, the Physicians Committee filed a lawsuit against USDA for failing to respond to our petition in a “reasonable time,” as required by the Administrative Procedure Act.

The lawsuit also claims that USDA violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to our 2017 request seeking documentation of fecal contamination rates detected in poultry slaughter plants and other data related to poultry inspection and slaughter line speed.

It’s information that could help protect consumers. “Poultry Slaughter Procedures,” a USDA training video obtained by the Physicians Committee through a FOIA request made in 2013, revealed that the chicken slaughtering process ends with carcasses soaking in a tank of cold water that industry experts call “fecal soup” to describe the brown, feces-laden liquid that the carcasses marinate in for up to one hour before being packaged for consumers.

“We often see birds going down the line with intestines still attached, which are full of fecal contamination. If there is no fecal contamination on the bird’s skin, however, we can do nothing to stop that bird from going down that line,” said one federal inspector quoted in the lawsuit. “It is more than reasonable to assume that once the bird gets into the chill tank (a large vat of cold water), that contamination will enter the water and contaminate all of the other carcasses in the chiller. That’s why it is sometimes called ‘fecal soup.’”

In 2014, USDA created the New Poultry Inspection System, which increased slaughter and processing line speeds to between 140 and 175 birds per minute. Data show that plants operating under this model are more likely to fail USDA’s performance standards for salmonella, a bacterium found in feces, than those operating under the traditional inspection scheme.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations, and 450 deaths in the United States every year.

But bacteria are not the only problem. Cooking meat does not remove the feces, which the petition says may contain “round worms, hair worms, tape worms, and leftover bits of whatever the animal excreting the feces may have eaten, not to mention the usual fecal components of digestive juices and various chemicals that the animal was in the process of excreting.”

Consumers may soon face even greater risk from fecal contamination as the federal government prepares to give the meat industry even more oversight of inspections. In May, the federal government plans on cutting the number of USDA inspectors at hog plants by about 40 percent and replacing them with plant employees. There would be no limits on slaughter-line speeds.

The Washington Post recently interviewed a retired USDA hog inspector who worked at a plant where this system was tested. He said that hog carcasses went by so fast that fecal contamination could not be detected.

As the federal government seemingly continues to allow the meat industry to move toward greater self-regulation, USDA must be more transparent about the fecal contamination dangers the public faces from consuming meat and poultry products.

Neal Barnard, M.D. is president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research and medical training.