by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Chickens

Aug 4 2014

USDA’s new poultry inspection system, complicated but voluntary

I thought it might be time for a summary of why USDA’s new requirements for poultry inspection are so controversial.  Some groups think they are a big step forward; others most definitely do not.

The USDA says its new rules, which are largely based on research published in 2011:

  • Will place new requirements on the poultry industry.
  • Will prevent 5000 illnesses a year from Salmonella and Campylobacter
  • Puts trained USDA inspectors where they will do the most good.
  • Require poultry facilities to test for Salmonella and Campylobacter at two points during production (USDA will continue to do its own testing).
  • Giving poultry producers the option of doing their own inspections.
  • Caps the maximum line speed at 140 birds per minute (rather than the 175 the industry wanted).
  • Estimates the public health benefit at $79 million.

It also says

More inspectors will now be available to more frequently remove birds from the evisceration line for close food safety examinations, take samples for testing, check plant sanitation, verify compliance with food safety plans, observe live birds for signs of disease or mistreatment, and ensuring plants are meeting all applicable regulations.

To read the Federal Register notice (when it’s ready), click here.

The main issues

Line speed:  this refers to the evisceration line and is the speed at which workers must deal with the chickens.  The current speed is 140 birds per minute.  This means 2.33 birds per second.   It’s hard to imagine that any worker could manage that—or any inspector could see anything—at that speed.

The National Council of La Raza wrote USDA  in 2012 that raising the line speed posed a hazard to worker safety and “would recklessly threaten the health and safety of poultry workers.”  USDA listened.  The NCLR must be pleased.

The poultry industry is not pleased.  The National Chicken Council complains that “politics have trumped sound science, 15 years of food and worker safety data and a successful pilot program with plants operating at 175 birds per minute.”

Politico ProAg points out that the new system will cost the poultry industry $259 million—what it would have gained if line speeds increased to 175 per minute.

Privatization of inspectors.  The new rules shift responsibility for inspecting chickens, no matter how impossible, to company employees—the fox guarding the chickens, as it were. Food and Water Watch argues that this poses a conflict of interest since it’s in the managers’ interest to keep the lines moving as fast as possible and not to find anything wrong.   Food and Water Watch says the new system “will transfer most poultry inspection from government inspectors to the companies so they can police themselves.” Several members of Congress have also complained.   The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report noting that USDA doesn’t really have data on which to base this change.

Change in function of USDA inspectors.  Up to 1,500 USDA phased out of poultry production may have to relocate or retire.  USDA estimates it will save $90 million over the next three years from this reduction.

Turkeys.  The new system allows turkey plants to raise line speeds to 55 per minute, up from 51 birds per minute.  The National Turkey Federation says most turkey plants will comply.

Waivers.  The Washington Post says the new system “provides a waiver to 20 plants that are already in a pilot program, letting them operate at 175 birds per minute.”

Voluntary.  The program is voluntary.  Plants can continue doing things the way they are.  

What to make of all this?  The testing requirements are a huge step forward.  The inspection changes seem mixed. It’s hard to believe that line inspection is useful even at 140 birds per minute.  

I’d rather have USDA inspectors making sure prevention controls are in place and adhered to, the testing is done honestly, and keeping an eye out for unsafe worker conditions (which, alas, is not their job).  

Let’s give it a try and see how it works in practice.

In the meantime, here’s what else is happening on the poultry safety front:

Other related news

Salmonella is not an adulterant, says USDA.  If it were, anything contaminated with it could not be sold.  USDA denied the petition from Center for Science in the Public Interest to have four antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella declared as as adulterants in ground meat and poultry products.

After thoroughly reviewing the available data, FSIS has concluded that the data does not support giving the four strains of [antibiotic-resistant] salmonella identified in the petition a different status as an adulterant in raw ground meat and raw ground poultry than salmonella strains susceptible to antibiotics.

The Foster Farms Salmonella outbreak is over, says the CDC.

The CDC announced today a total of 634 persons infected with seven outbreak strains of Salmonella Heidelberg were reported from 29 states and Puerto Rico from March 1, 2013 to July 11, 2014.

Epidemiologic, laboratory, and traceback investigations conducted by local, state, and federal officials indicated that consumption of Foster Farms brand chicken was the source of this outbreak of Salmonella Heidelberg infections.

38% of ill persons were hospitalized, but no deaths were reported.

Most ill persons (77%) were reported from California, but cases were reported in other states as well.

And that’s why all of this matters so much.

May 12 2014

More on USDA Process-Verified chicken

George Faisan sent me this photo of a package of Perdue’s USDA process-verified chicken.

image2

I wrote about this chicken in 2011.

At the time, I pointed out that broilers are usually raised on grain, are not usually fed animal by-products, and are never fed hormones or steroids.  And cage-free usually means something like this:

image

The USDA does indeed have a process verification program .  As I explained in 2011, it is a marketing program that allows producers to make claims and create certification logos.

My 2011 remarks elicited a response from a Perdue official implying that the only antibiotic used in their chickens is one used to deal with coccidiosis, and it is not used in humans.  He said Perdue is a family-owned company trying hard to do this right.

My remarks also elicited a response from Tyson, a Perdue competitor:

Dr. Nestle is correct that Perdue’s claims are marketing hype. The process verified label is confusing to consumers because it implies that Perdue’s practices are more humane than other producers and that other producers raise broilers in cages. Neither of those claims are true. Tyson filed a petition, supported by consumer survey research, requesting that USDA revoke that label.

The Tyson petition objected to Perdue’s use of Process Verification on the basis that its labels are misleading.

USDA disagreed.  It defended the Process Verified Program as

a voluntary, user-fee program that is open to all companies…to gain a marketing advantage for their products.  Perdue’s competitors are free to participate in the program and obtain the same marketing advantage.

In 2011, Perdue was claiming that its chickens were “humanely raised.”  It’s not doing that anymore.

Backyard chickens, anyone?

Jun 27 2011

Perdue’s chickens: “USDA Process-Verified”?

When New York Times reporter Stuart Elliott called to ask about the USDA’s process verification for Perdue chickens, I had to confess that I had never heard of it.

 

I had no idea that USDA sponsored a program to certify poultry producers’ claims like Perdue’s:

  • All Vegetarian Diet
  • No Animal By-Products
  • Humanely Raised 1/
  • Raised Cage Free
  • Tenderness Guaranteed 2/(I discuss the footnotes below)

The USDA does indeed have a process verification program.

This  is not, as you might expect, an inspection program to make sure that food producers are doing what they claim.  No, USDA’s Process Verification is a marketing program that allows producers to make claims and create certification logos.

As I discussed in the egg chapters in What to Eat, process verification is very much in the eye of the beholder.  Most egg—and broiler—process verification programs certify that the chickens are fed and sheltered.  How, is quite another matter.

Perdue’s claims are marketing hype because broilers are pretty much always fed grain, are not routinely fed animal by-products, and  are not raised in cages.  The claims say nothing about antibiotics so you have to assume these chickens are treated with antibiotics to promote growth and prevent infection under crowded conditions.* see correction below

And now the footnotes:

*1/ Humanely Raised Program claim is in accordance with Perdue’s Best Practices, which include:

  • Education, training, and planning
  • Hatchery Operations
  • Proper Nutrition and Feeding
  • Appropriate Comfort and Shelter
  • Health Care
  • Normal Patterns of Behavior
  • On-Farm Best Practices
  • Catching and Transportation
  • Processing

*Based on the principles outlined in Official Listing of Approved USDA Process Verified Programs Company Claims Verified Program Scope Verification Information in the National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines to ensure the proper care, management, and handling of broiler chickens.

2/ Tenderness is Guaranteed through the implementation and verification of Perdue’s “Tenderness Best Practices”.

The guidelines require careful reading.  “Humanely raised” by Perdue’s criteria might not be what you mean by the term.

This campaign is not about safety, health, or humane treatment.  It is about marketing.

As I explained to Stuart Elliott, it’s hard not to be sarcastic about this sort of thing.  And to wonder why the USDA needs to do this.

*Correction July 5, 2011:  An official of Perdue points out that many chicken producers feed animal by-products to the birds but his company decided not to do that some time ago because it could not verify what went into the by-products.  He also points out that the company cannot claim that the birds are raised without antibiotics because they have to use a particular kind of antibiotic—not one used in humans—to deal with coccidiosis.   Perdue, he explains, is a family-owned company trying hard to do this right (family-owned companies are not subject to Wall Street pressures to grow profits every 90 days).  I haven’t visited a Perdue farm so I have no first-hand experience, but I’m inclined to take what he told me at face value.

 

Feb 5 2010

Backyard chickens: an art, a science, a social movement

Just before it closed last weekend, I got to see the delightful exhibit on the history of backyard chickens in the lobby of Cornell’s Mann Library.  Cornell, it seems, houses a major collection of items on chickens in its Rice Poultry Collection.  This collection, named after James E. Rice, the first professor of poultry husbandry in America, contains more than 800 pre-1900 volumes on poultry science.

These were fun to see in this wonderfully curated tiny exhibit.  The few cases displayed books, pamphlets, photographs, and some enviable chicken-raising collectibles, old and new.  The early 20th century books on backyard poultry raising look just like the ones being produced today.  In between, of course, came massive industrial chicken production, as the curator’s notes explained.

The curator, Liz Brown, says the library is working on a permanent, online version, which should go up on the Mann Library site sometime this summer.

In 2002, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Yale conference on “The Chicken: Its Biological, Social, Cultural, and Industrial History from Neolithic Middens to McNuggets.”  That conference, keynoted by a then relatively unknown journalist, Michael Pollan, made it clear that chickens were a key component of the food revolution and well worth the attention of activists and advocates, as well as scholars.

You think this idea is too far-fetched?  I have to admit not quite getting it until Sabrina Lombardi, a student in my Food Sociology/Social Movements class at NYU last semester, wrote a terrific paper on chicken raising and pointed me to the new magazine, Backyard Poultry (“have you hugged your chicken today?”) and the Chicken Revolution website.  This last comes complete with a logo that says it all.   Happy weekend!

Dec 3 2009

Food agencies at work (or not): USDA

USDA is the agency supposedly responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.  Unlike FDA, which is responsible for the safety of just about all other foods, USDA gets to impose HACCP (science-based food safety regulations) on meat and poultry.  It just doesn’t bother to enforce its own rules.  Hence recent events:

Consumer Reports, which for decades has been testing supermarket chickens for microbial contaminants, has just  tested chickens again. Sigh. Two-thirds were contaminated with Salmonella or Campylobacter. You will be relieved to know that this is an improvement. It was 80% the last time Consumer Reports did the testing.

In an effort to get USDA and the poultry industry moving on this problem, Senator Dianne Feinstein (Dem-CA) has introduced a bill to prohibit the sale of meat that has not been certified free of pathogens. Based on what’s been happening with meat safety, I’m betting it won’t get far.

So let’s talk about meat safety.  For this, we should all be reading USA Today, which seems to be one of the last newspapers in America still funding investigative reporting.  Its latest blockbuster is an account of the 826,000-pound recall by Beef Packers, Inc. (a subsidiary of Cargill) a few months ago. The meat made at least 28 people ill as a result of infections with a strain of Salmonella Newport highly resistant to antibiotics.

That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.  Beef Packers is a major supplier of meat to the USDA’s school lunch program. But oops.  The recall covered meat sent to retailers.  It did not cover meat sent to schools. According to the intrepid reporters at USA Today, USDA bought 450,000 pounds of ground beef produced by Beef Packers during the dates covered by the recall.

USDA should have known better.  Beef Packers had a history of positive Salmonella tests but the USDA did not disclose that information. An official told USA Today that doing so

would discourage companies from contracting to supply product for the National School Lunch Program and hamper our ability to provide the safe and nutritious foods to American school children.

You can’t make these things up.  USA Today provides the documents on its site to prove it.

I missed the earlier article in the USA Today series about school lunches in general and Del Rey Tortillas in particular, a company implicated in 20 cases of school food poisonings since 2003. Check out the article’s quick facts-and-figures about school lunches, the nifty interactive timeline for the Del Rey episodes, and the raft of documents in this case.

Good work, reporters. If you want to know why we need newspapers, here’s a good reason.

As for USDA: the new administration at the agency shows many signs of wanting to do the right thing about food safety but they have to deal with entrenched staff and inspectors who have been cozy with industry far too long.  USDA: deal with it!

Coming soon: updates on FDA and FTC.

Jun 8 2008

Tyson’s antibiotic-free ploy, checkmated

Thanks to Susan Schneider, who writes a blog on agricultural law (now added to my blogroll), for alerting me to her post about the Tyson’s antibiotic-free claim on the labels of its antibiotic-treated chickens. This is a good story–one of the usual deceit and denial–and she tells it well. Enjoy?