Why the FDA's Latest Move on Chicken Inspection Is Literally Full of Sh*t
If you buy your chicken from the supermarket, here are a few things about its life that might make you less eager to eat it. As a chick, your chicken's beak was cut off so that it wouldn't attack other chickens in the overcrowded cage in which it was raised. Your chicken was fed so much grain so quickly – supplemented with antibiotics – that, by the time it was ready for slaughter at the age of five weeks, its breasts were swollen and disproportionately large, rendering it unable to walk. Once your chicken was slaughtered, it was tossed into a chlorinated bath or doused with other industrial-grade chemicals so that your chicken would reach you "clean".
But "clean", when it comes to meat, is a relative standard. Most chickens spend the bulk of their short lives covered or standing in feces (to say nothing of the conditions in which cows, pigs or even turkeys are raised), and the way in which they are dispatched in the modern era is so sordid that farm states are actually passing laws to keep you from ever bearing witness to the slaughter.
Old Macdonald had a farm – once – but corporations interested in maximizing profits bought him out.
The one small hope for human health has been that the US Department of Agriculture has inspectors to watch over those processing plants and make sure we don't eat sick chickens or chickens covered in their own feces as they make their way through the processing plant. That is, it's been the one hope until now.
The USDA is moving toward final approval of a rule that would replace most government inspectors with untrained company employees, and to allow companies to slaughter chickens at a much faster rate. (The rule is called the "Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection", but advocates like the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch are calling it the "Filthy Chicken Rule".) It could be approved as soon as this week.
This "modernization" of inspections through privatization is likely to cause more problems than already occur because the company employees will be disinclined to cost their bosses money by slowing down, stopping production or removing chickens when there's a problem. "It's really letting the fox guard the chicken coop", says Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch.
And there are already plenty of problems. The rule comes in the midst of a years-long increase in the number of food-born illnesses, driven in part by a shortage of government inspectors.
As the International Business Times reported:
An increase in the incidence of salmonella in the U.S. could have a real impact on consumers, as the pathogen already represents a major threat to public health. Salmonella 'is estimated to cause 1.2 million illnesses in the United States, with about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths' each year, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A study of more than 300 raw chicken breasts released by Consumer Reports earlier this year found that 10.8 percent harbored salmonella, while 65.2 percent tested positive for E. coli. Overall, about 97 percent of the breasts tested contained harmful bacteria, according to the study.
And salmonella isn't even one of the diseases the USDA can currently regulate by stopping production if diseased or feces-covered birds make it into the production line.
It's hardly better elsewhere: the Guardian just released the results of a major investigation into chicken factory farming in the UK, and found that poor hygiene and spotty adherence to the rules makes 280,000 people sick there each year.
Advocates had been working to make the American regulatory system more comprehensive, supporting bills like one introduced by Congresswomen Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) that would have allowed USDA inspectors to make sure that birds infected with salmonella didn't make it into our kitchens. Instead, the Obama administration is making sure we're getting a less powerful USDA altogether.
Of course, chicken processors are hardly the only offenders. Almost every kind of animal slaughtered in the United States is pumped full of drugs and raised in unsustainably large factory farms. It's incredibly bad for the environment, not to mention our stomachs.
But processing companies are uniquely powerful in the poultry industry. They've devised a system that sucks money from farmers, making them poorer every year, and sells increasingly cheap and unhealthy meat to consumers. And, with the new rule getting rid of government inspectors, companies stand to earn even more profits. (Estimates on the new rule place savings for those companies at about $256m per year.)
It's particularly disappointing seeing this rule from the Obama administration, which many food-safety advocates had hoped would improve the quality of the food we eat, rather than degrade it. "They've gone out of their way to cater to the industry on this," Corbo says. "This is a gift to the poultry industry."
Unfortunately, the cost of that "gift" could be human health.