Playing Chicken With Food Safety

  • submit to reddit

(Photo: Public Citizen/flickr)

The other day there was this guy in a chicken suit on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting outside the White House. Silly, but the reason the chicken and other demonstrators had crossed the avenue was to deliver a petition of more than half a million names, speaking out against new rules the US Department of Agriculture wants to put into effect – bad rules that would transfer much of the work inspecting pork and chicken and turkey meat from trained government inspectors to the processing companies themselves. Talk about putting the fox in the henhouse!

The revised regulations also call for a substantial speeding up of the disassembly line along which workers use sharp knives and often painful, repetitive hand motions to cut up and clean carcasses of dirt, blood and other contaminants that can cause infection and sickness. Not only will this increase in speed – by 25 percent or more — raise the chance of injury, it makes it easier to miss anything wrong – even deadly — with the meat. To compensate for that, the rules also call for an increase in the use of antimicrobial chemicals sprayed on the meat — but those sprays may actually damage the health of the workers. Inspectors and meat packing employees report instances of asthma, burns, skin rashes, sinus trouble and other respiratory ailments, some of them severe. What’s more, when complaints were made about health or hygiene, the response from employers often came in the form of threats and reprimands.

According to the Agriculture Department, their plan will increase food safety, but early last month, the Government Accountability Office – the GAO — reported on a years-old pilot program for some of these new rules and determined that the data on which they were based was, in the words of The Washington Post, “incomplete and antiquated.” One study used data that was more than 20 years old.

The Agriculture Department says the new rules will save the Federal budget $30 million annually, but compared to the more than $256 million it will save the poultry industry every year, that’s chickenfeed. In reality, as Tom Philpott, the food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones magazine, succinctly put it: “…The Obama administration has been pushing a deregulatory sop to a powerful industry based on a shoddy analysis.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that “each year roughly one in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases.” Every state in the union has seen an outbreak in foodborne illness over the last decade; men, women and children made sick by E.coli, salmonella and other pathogens in everything from meat to produce, cereal, even peanut butter. The progressive website Truthout notes that “Americans are 110 times more likely to die from contaminated food than terrorism… at an annual cost to the economy of nearly $80 billion.”

FILE - In this March 3, 2011 file photo, boneless pork loins sit waiting to be packaged at a local Dahl's grocery store in Des Moines, Iowa.  The U.S. Department of Agricultureís Food Safety and Inspection Service will announce Tuesday, May 23, 2011, that it has lowered its temperature recommendation for cooking pork to 145 degrees. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Boneless pork loins sit waiting to be packaged at a Dahl's grocery store in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

And yet, when Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act almost three years ago, designed to toughen standards, the representatives of the food industry – spending tens of millions in campaign contributions and lobbying money — went after it with a vengeance, delaying and watering the final version down so much that the Food and Drug Administration can barely function, its own inspectors unable to fulfill their duties. (The situation was made even worse by the government shutdown.)

In 2011, the FDA inspected only six percent of domestic food producers and less than half a percent of imported food – and this at a time when more and more of our food – including two thirds of our fresh fruits and vegetables – is coming from overseas.

Additional pressure on Congress and state legislatures comes from our old friend ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by Koch Industries and other corporations – including, recently, Google and Facebook – as well as conservative organizations, to draft legislation designed to benefit big business no matter the cost to the rest of us.

In an introduction to its so-called “agriculture principles,” ALEC announced, “The proper role of government involvement in agriculture is to limit and remove barriers for agricultural production, trade and consumption throughout our innovative food system.”  Safety restrictions should “incorporate a least restrictive approach,” it says, while at the same time ALEC encourages high tech, high yield farming and calls out against  “unnecessary additional restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.”

ALEC boasts abut the safety and quality of our food system – the highest in the world, it says – but at the same time designs and pushes legislation designed to prosecute and crush journalists, whistleblowers and animal rights activists who would secretly infiltrate the food industry to expose shoddy practices and unsafe, unsanitary conditions that threaten the nation’s well-being. These so-called “ag-gag” bills criminalize those who would report abuse. If such laws had existed a century ago, a muckraker like Upton Sinclair would never have been allowed to report the sordid practices of the meat packing industry that led to his book “The Jungle” and saved who knows how many from tainted food, sickness and death?

Add to this the controversy over growth-enhancing drugs and hormones, the danger of genetically modified foods, the cruelty of big business factory farms: how can measures like these sound like good ideas to anyone other than those who would put profits above public health? It’s called “runaway capitalism,” and the time has come to stop this free market fundamentalism gone amok.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Karen Kimball contributed research to this piece. 

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.
  • submit to reddit
  • JonThomas

    So, does this mean that meat eaters might get sick more often?

  • Susan

    Good question!

  • Leroy

    No it means everyone might get sick more often. they are talking about the vegi farmer too

  • Ashley

    Write to your congresspeople and get your friends to do the same!

    If you buy meat, getting it from a local butcher who you trust is a good option.

  • DavidW

    There is currently not enough of an underlying infrastructure to local and regional food production and distribution to be able to compete with CAFO’s and the factory slaughterhouses. We need local development and support for farmers and butchers and distributors.

    Support your local Food Co-ops that are trying to put these systems in place. Find out more and invest your time and money in local food. We need to be able to compete against these bad corporate actors and take market share away from them and diminish their influence!

  • naomi dagen bloom

    Nice idea but we’re past the time when it is possible to “compete” with the giants. While I have privilege to purchase from several food co-ops in Portland, Oregon, also know that many cannot do so. That’s why it is also my responsibility to be political–demand better regulations from USDA and other government agencies.

  • naomi dagen bloom

    Check out these sites–Food and Water Watch and Marion Nestle’s Food Politics. Here’s a recent one on food safety

  • Anonymous

    Who’s next, LASSIE????

  • DavidW

    We just have to move them toward our end of the market. Imagine the outsized influence Co-ops already have when our practices can be emulated by the general market. Think that maybe their market research has been finding more people gravitating to Food Co-ops. They will respond and we just have to keep doing what we are doing and remember to toot our own horns.