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Metal Shards and Much Worse In Your Food? What Happens When the Food Industry Regulates Itself

In a move that may prove deadly for workers and consumers, the federal government is washing its hands of slaughterhouse inspection and encouraging industry self-regulation.

Was Jose Navarro, a federal poultry inspector who died two years ago at the age of 37, a  victim of increasingly noxious chemicals used in poultry and meat production? Chemicals like ammonia, chlorine and peracetic acid that are frequently employed to kill aggressive bacteria in meat and poultry?

Navarro coughed up blood several months before his death, the  Washington Post reported last week, and he died in November 2011 of lung and kidney failure, according to the autopsy report. An OSHA inspector during a subsequent investigation said “the combination of disinfectants and other chemicals” in addition to pathogens such as salmonella “could be causing significant health problems for processing-plant occupants,” reports the  Post. The plant where Navarro worked and the chicken industry defend the chemicals as safe.

It is no secret that new methods are being used in the war against bacteria because of the antibiotic resistance the meat industry's widespread reliance on antibiotics has helped cause. Antibiotics save money for livestock operations in two ways: they keep the animals alive in filthy, packed conditions in which they might otherwise die; and they make animals gain weight with less food because of their metabolic effects.

Despite the routine use of antibiotics in livestock operations, bacteria and resistant bacteria are rampant in the food supply. Almost half of US beef, chicken, pork and turkey contained staph bacteria when they were tested, reported the  Los Angeles Times in 2011--including the resistant MRSA bacterium (methicillin-resistant S. aureus). Two serious strains of antibiotic-resistant salmonella, Salmonella Heidelberg and Salmonella Hadar, forced recalls in recent years of turkey products from  Jennie-O Turkey and Cargill. The resistant salmonella strains were so deadly, officials warned that disposed meat should be placed in sealed garbage cans to  protect wildlife.

But there is another reason that stronger and more volatile chemicals are being used. The federal government is increasingly washing its hands, pun intended, of slaughterhouse inspection and encouraging industry "self-regulation," which is cheaper for both sides. Thanks to the new era of food industry laissez-faire, assembly lines are moving even more quickly--if that's possible--and more aggressive chemicals are being employed. "Pink Slime" treated with puffs of ammonia to kill E. coli, was only one example of extreme chemicals routinely used to kill germs, often under the public's radar.

There is also an ongoing  battle between US trade officials and the European Union and Russia over US poultry because it is dipped in chlorine bleach to kill germs. Who knew? And conventional US poultry is often grown on feed that contains arsenic, which the  FDA says is used to control parasites, promote weight gain and feed efficiency and improve “pigmentation.” In 2011, Pfizer announced it would stop selling arsenic-treated chicken feed after the FDA found residues in chicken livers and most people assumed the substance had been retired from poultry farms. Guess again. Histostat, or nitarsone, another arsenic-based feed additive, is still on the market, reports the  New York Times.

Inspectors Add Their Voices To Agribusiness Critics

Over the years, reports about the deleterious effects of self-regulating agribusinesses on animals, workers, the environment and consumers who eat the products have made headlines. But increasingly, federal meat inspectors are speaking out about the broken system.

“My plant in Pennsylvania processed 1,800 cows a day, 220 per hour,” and veterinarians were pressured “to look the other way” when violations happened," Lester Friedlander, a federal meat inspector told the  Winnipeg Free Press. The reason? Stopping "the line" cost the plant about $5,000 a minute. Friedlander was a USDA veterinarian for 10 years and trained other federal veterinarians.

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