by Marion Nestle
Apr 6 2012

Tired of hearing about beef processing? Try chicken.

Apparently as a result of a need to cut costs, the USDA is changing the way its inspectors oversee chicken processing.

As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post puts it, this is

a proposal to allow chicken slaughterhouses to inspect themselves — eliminating those pesky federal monitors who have the annoying habit of taking diseased birds out of the food supply.

Even if the Obama administration were inclined to bring down capitalism with an orgy of overregulation, there isn’t enough money in the budget to enforce the rules on the books.  That’s what the chicken fight is about: Spending cuts…are a form of de facto deregulation (my emphasis).

The New York Times account of this policy change notes that inspectors:

had observed numerous instances of poultry plant employees allowing birds contaminated with fecal matter or other substances to pass. And even when the employees try to remove diseased birds, they face reprimands….

The Agriculture Department proposal allows poultry plants to speed up their assembly lines to about 200 birds per minute from 140, hampering any effort to examine birds for defects.

But that’s not all.  The Center for Livable Future at Johns Hopkins  reports that meal made from chicken by-products (in this case, feathers) contains arsenic and antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones that have been banned by the FDA for use in poultry.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology found fluoroquinolone antibiotics in 8 of 12 samples of feather meal collected from six states and China.

A second study found arsenic in every sample of feather meal tested.

These findings indicate that poultry producers are using these drugs, even though they are not allowed to.

The U.S. poultry industry raises about 9 billion chickens and 80 million turkeys for human consumption each year.  Meal made from their feathers is commonly added to feed for chickens, pigs, cattle, and fish.  This could be a reentry route into the human food supply for such drugs.

Nicholas Kristof explains in the New York Times that these studies also found feather meal to contain

an antihistamine that is the active ingredient of Benadryl…[and] acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol.  And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.

Poultry-growing literature has recommended Benadryl to reduce anxiety among chickens, apparently because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly. Tylenol and Prozac presumably serve the same purpose.

Such findings indicate some of the worst problems with industrial poultry production.  They result from pressures to produce chickens cheaply.  The faster chickens can be pushed to grow, the less feed they consume and the cheaper they are to raise.

I don’t know what the best system for inspection might be, but I’m quite sure that leaving food safety oversight to the discretion of the packers is not a good idea.  Neither is speeding up the line.  And neither is feeding chickens drugs that can affect human health.

Here is even more evidence for the need for an overhaul of our food safety system.

A single food safety system anyone?

  • You’d think the USDA would listen to its own inspectors, many of whom have detailed why passing oversight responsibilities to the poultry companies themselves is a major threat to food safety. To view the whistleblower affidavits, visit the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign at

  • sandra haggard

    i have an idea….let’s all stop buying industrialized meat.

  • JB Christy

    The USDA is the “US Dept. of Agriculture”, whose original mission was to support and promote farming and ensure farmers profit. We have no “US Dept of Not Poisoning People With Horribly Contaminated Food.” Maybe we should do away with the bloated, unfocused USDA and create instead a department whose actual mission is protecting the health of consumers instead of promoting the profitability of producers.

  • In her book Slaughterhouse, Gail Eisnitz shows what a disaster previous attempts to deregulate chicken slaughter was… and now they’re doing more of it.

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  • Alfred E

    This news about contaminants in the chicken meat causes one conclusion to pop into my mind< we just can not trust the meat supply system in the United States. It sounds as bad as China in the "bad stuff (toxins, banned drugs, VERY important human medical antibiotics) are fed to the animals and no oversight is preventing it from happening." This has destroyed my previous trust of the chicken meat industry.

    Frankly, it sounds as "wild west" and undesirable and unfit for human consumption as the imported shrimp farming industry.

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  • NYFarmer

    And, what about Country of Origin labeling? I see that Goldman Sachs has invested $300,000,000 into Chinese poultry facilities. Also, the World Trade Organization has ruled in favor of China in the US/China poultry export battle. This means that US markets will be opened up for chicken imports from China into the US. The likely first Chinese chicken on a big scale into the US will be finished chicken breasts for American tastes. After that, who knows? Support local poultry farmers while you still can.

  • Kenny F

    I know it sounds radical, but I’m not so against this idea of the producers policing themselves. Before you express outrage, hear me out…

    1. they pretty much already are, but the general population has this false sense of security that the USDA/FDA are taking care of everything, leading to a blind (but foolish) trust in the system.

    2. if the general population is aware that the companies are policing themselves, there will be more diligence on the part of the consumer to know where their meat is coming from and some of the details about how it’s being raised and processed. There isn’t ANY of this going on right now, other than a small percentage of us.

    3. producers that are producing inferior quality meat will have only themselves to blame for their reputation. They will be liable for any illness that comes from eating their product. This and this alone will undoubtedly lead to a better system — companies will have to change their horrid practices or face bankruptcy once their tainted and tortured meat has a red-“X” on it from the public.

    The government is quite obviously in the pocket of big biz — the awfulness in the meat industry is going on and the government is complicit. Why should ANYONE have blind faith in this system?

    Companies policing themselves could be the beginning of getting back to a more localized system, in which most people actually KNOW where their food is coming from. Imagine that.

  • Dan

    The delicious irony, of course, is that the chicken feather meal that is being used here as a proxy for chicken flesh for the authors to make their measurements, actually has an industrial use as an organic fertilizer. Thus, though we don’t actually know whether these chemicals are in the chicken flesh eaten by chicken consumers, we do know they are being put on the organic vegetables consumed by vegans and organic food advocates who think they are somehow immune for all of this.

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