Chicken, Antibiotics and ''Backroom Deregulation'': Should the USDA Trust Poultry Plants?

Last week, Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column brought widespread attention to two new studies which discovered arsenic, banned antibiotics, Prozac and Benedryl present in poultry byproducts. These chemicals are fed to the birds in order to encourage them to stay awake and calm so they can eat more to grow faster.  If the image of drugged-up birds on illegal antibiotics troubles you, you're not alone – and more drugs in chickens means more drugs in our water supply.

The studies come at a particularly interesting moment, when the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) has floated a troubling policy proposal that would change inspection and safety procedures at poultry processing plants by cutting back the number of USDA inspectors and allowing the speed at which poultry are processed to speed up.

By the numbers:

  • There are 300 plants nationwide. While the procedural changes would be implemented on an opt-in basis, based on industry feedback it is expected that over 200 would do so.
  • At each plant, four USDA inspectors monitor poultry carcasses which come down each processing line at the rate of about 35 birds per minute. The proposed process would remove three of those inspectors, while allowing the line to speed up—possibly to a maximum rate of 175 birds per minute.
  • Going forward, the lone USDA inspector would primarily focus on microbial testing, while relying upon the poultry plants to use their own inspectors to keep an eye on carcass conditions.
  • Ultimately, 500 to 800 inspection positions and 140 supervisory positions would be affected over three years.
  • In the Executive Summary of the proposal, FSIS states that “the proposed new inspection system may facilitate the reduction of pathogen levels in poultry products by permitting FSIS to conduct more food safety related offline inspection activities, will allow for better use of FSIS inspection resources, and will lead to industry innovations in operations and processing.” (All emphases mine.)

Following analysis of data from pilot project testing which began in 1998, the USDA concluded that there could be same-or-better rates of disease while reducing the role of their inspectors. Moreover, they argue that industry should do more of the sorting and inspection work in the plants.

Placing one inspector at the end of a belt full of chickens moving faster than ever before sounds familiar – remember Lucy, Ethel and those chocolates? – but this time the image is frightening, not hilarious.

But should the poultry industry be responsible for policing itself? The presence of banned antibiotics in the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future/Arizona State University feather meal study would seem to suggest not. (The FDA has also recently asked drug companies to curtail antibiotics use in farm animals, but the agency’s draft recommendations are non-binding and voluntary.) Apart from health concerns, there has also been pushback from labor groups concerned about working conditions. Placing one inspector at the end of a belt full of chickens moving faster than ever before sounds familiar – remember Lucy, Ethel and those chocolates? – but this time the image is frightening, not hilarious. USDA inspectors and labor unions have also expressed opposition based on safety issues.

Part of the USDA’s argument for reform is the economic savings offered by the elimination of inspectors' jobs (which will happen via attrition). Should this policy be implemented, there could be larger implications for government oversight and consumer protections exercised by other agencies (prisons? schools?) or within other types of food production systems. Dana Milbank assessed the proposed reform in the Washington Post as "de facto deregulation.” Such deregulation could represent an election-year bid by the current administration to befriend the poultry industry, Big Ag and business generally.

According to Food & Water Watch, inspectors are responsible for spotting defects like “feathers, lungs, oil glands, trachea and bile still on the carcass." Or, at more than 90% of the pilot project’s sites, the fecal matter missed by the inspector. But somehow, when the changes were first proposed, FSIS estimated that by reducing the number of USDA inspectors and increasing line speeds, Salmonella infections would fall by 4,286, from an estimated 174,686 illnesses each year; Campylobacter infections would fall by 1,000 cases per year to about 168,000. Milbank’s story also quoted Trent Berhow, one of several demonstrators outside the Agriculture Department on April 2, saying that “chickens are just the canaries in the coal mine of food-safety deregulation.  If it starts in chicken, eventually it’s going to continue on into red meat, into hogs and cattle,” [Berhow] said. “No doubt about that.”

The proposed regulation is open for public comment until April 26. If you eat chicken, or love someone who does, you might want to weigh in.