by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Chickens

Nov 10 2017

Weekend reading: the Hamlet Fire

Bryant Simon The Hamlet Fire, A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives. The New Press.

Image result for the hamlet fire

This book, which deserves a much better cover, tells a compelling story.  Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University, has written an epic book about industrialized broiler production.  His starting point is the tragic fire that killed 25 people in a poultry processing plant in 1991, in Hamlet, North Carolina.

It’s inconceivable that this plant, which made cheap chicken fingers for fast food outlets, had locked exit doors—nearly a century after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire (which is still commemorated every March 25 in front of the building, now owned by NYU).

To explain the meaning of the fire, Simon takes on globalization’s effect in promoting industrialized chicken production; the loss of well paying jobs in small rural communities led to surplus labor that made it possible to produce cheap chicken and even cheaper chicken products.

Simon links these events to the increasing prevalence of obesity among overworked and underpaid laborers in rural communities.   His stories of workers in chicken processing plants make it clear how they have to deal with the social, racial, and political issues that confront families in rural America.

The costs of cheap food, Simon says eloquently, are borne by the workers and communities that produce it.

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Oct 25 2017

Farewell to GIPSA and bad news for family farmers

Last week, the USDA withdrew its Farmer Fair Practices Interim Final Rule (a.k.a. the GIPSA—Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration—rule).

The USDA announced this rule at the end of 2016 with great fanfare but, as I explained last April, then delayed it under pressure from the meat and poultry industries.  Now those industries have succeeded in getting rid of it.

The official explanation?  “Serious legal and policy concerns related to its promulgation and implementation.”

Oh, please.

According to last year’s USDA, the new rules would have leveled “the playing field for farmers by proposing protections against the most egregious retaliatory practices harming chicken growers.”  Without this rule, family farmers have little defense against the mean and unfair practices of meat packers and poultry dealers.

Senator Chuck Grassley (Rep – Iowa) minces no words: The USDA is “just pandering to big corporations. They aren’t interested in the family farmer…The USDA is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the U.S. Department of Big Agribusiness.”

Told by Agri-Pulse of USDA’s decision to withdraw the rule, Sen. Grassley said he “violently opposed USDA’s decision to withdraw the rule:

If they would know how some of these people are treated that contract with these big multi-corporations, they wouldn’t be withdrawing that,…They’re just pandering to big corporations. They aren’t interested in the family farmer…Everybody thinks draining the swamp is firing a whole bunch of congressmen and a whole bunch of bureaucrats; it’s changing the culture of the bureaucracy…This is a perfect example of a swamp that’s being refilled by withdrawing these rules.

What happens now?  More than 200 agriculture groups signed a letter to key ag-state lawmakers asking for more market transparency and anti-trust protections.

Will such calls grow?  I certainly hope so.

For further reading

Sep 15 2017

Weekend reading: Big Chicken

Maryn McKenna.  Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.  National Geographic, 2017.

Image result for big chicken mckenna

I did a blurb for this terrific book, out on September 12:

If you think raising farm animals on antibiotics is nothing to worry about, Big Chicken will change your mind in a hurry.  McKenna, a compelling writer, tells a gripping story: how antibiotics helped transform chicken-raising from backyard to industrial.  Her account of the profit-driven politics that allowed widespread antibiotic resistance should be required reading for anyone who cares about food and health, and especially for congressional representatives who have consistently failed to take action on this critical issue.

 

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May 10 2017

Will we ever stop misusing animal antibiotics?

Politico ProAg reports that the International Poultry Council will soon issue a statement advising the poultry industry to:

  • Stop using antibiotics critical to human medicine to promote livestock growth and prevent disease,
  • Only use these drugs when prescribed by a veterinarian for treatment of disease,
  • Be transparent about the amount of antibiotics it uses and why.

The poultry industry routinely uses antibiotics in feed and water despite major efforts to stop this practice.

Government agencies concerned about increasing resistance to animal antibiotics have long wanted their use stopped or managed appropriately.

Trying to stop misuse of animal antibiotics has a long history.

The animal agriculture industry has fought all attempts to curtain antibiotic use.

The word has gotten through to the poultry industry.  Let’s hope this works.

Dec 19 2016

USDA issues rules to protect poultry growers: a compromise, but still better

USDA has just released three sets of GIPSA rules governing poultry grower ranking (“tournament”) systems (GIPSA stands for Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration).

These are draconian systems in which poultry growers working for giant, vertically integrated poultry companies compete with each other for payments.

The system works like this:

The vertically integrated live poultry dealer provides the chicks, feed, and medication to poultry growers who house and feed the birds under a contract. The poultry grower grows the birds to market size (preferred weight for slaughter) and then, after slaughter, receives a settlement check for that flock. The payment received depends on how efficiently the poultry grower converted feed to meat as compared to the other poultry growers in the settlement group.

It’s hard to begin to imagine how unfair this system can be.

The poultry companies control the following inputs and production variables: chick health, number of chicks placed, feed quality, medications, growout time, breed and type of bird, weighing of the birds, and weighing of the feed.

And on top of this, “company employees who are also poultry growers get preferential treatment and may get better birds or get to keep flocks longer.”

Or, as GIPSA’s Q and A puts it:

For example, if a chicken grower attempts to organize other chicken growers to bargain for better pay or publicly expresses unhappiness with the way they are being treated by a processor, they can suffer retaliation. Processors can require growers to make investments that are not economically justifiable for the grower, or can terminate contracts with little notice. And because in contract growing the processors own the birds and provide inputs like feed, they can choose to provide poultry growers with bad feed or sickly birds that have a higher mortality rate, which cuts deeply into a grower’s opportunity to earn income on those birds.

The USDA press release pointed out that

the four largest poultry processors control 51 percent of the broiler market and 57 percent of the turkey market.  In part due to this concentration, poultry growers often have limited options for processors available in their local communities: 52 percent of growers have only one or two processors in their state or region to whom they can sell.  That means processors can often wield market power over the growers, treating them unfairly, suppressing how much they are paid, or pitting them against each other.

GIPSA initially proposed rules in 2010 that would protect growers from some of these abuses by paying them more fairly, but the industry objected.  It doesn’t like the revised rules either.  As the National Chicken Council puts it, “Obama Administration Strangles Poultry and Livestock Producers with New, Controversial Regulations.”  And the pork producers say they will work with president Trump to get rid of the rule.

The current proposals are a compromise, but a reasonably good one.  The proposal establishes criteria that the USDA Secretary may use to determine:

whether a live poultry dealer has used a poultry grower ranking system to compensate poultry growers in an unfair, unjustly discriminatory, or deceptive manner, or in a way that gives an undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any poultry grower or subjects any poultry grower to an undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says the rules

finally give the largely toothless act some bite. The “Farmer Fair Practices Rules” published today…will provide much-needed protections to contract farmers in the poultry and livestock industry.

Food and Water Watch says (via email)

These proposed and interim rules provide important, though modest, protections for farmers, but fall far short of the safeguards mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill. Hopefully, these rules can provide a foundation for strengthening farmer protections in the face of an increasingly consolidated poultry, hog and cattle slaughter and processing industry.

But I particularly love the tell-it-like-it-is statement from the Government Accountability Project’s Amanda Hitt (also via email):

It’s been a long time since we have been in a position to praise the Department of Agriculture, but today, Secretary Vilsack got it right…The GIPSA rules that came out today are not only a welcome attempt to right a series of wrongs that heretofore have gone unchecked, but are also simple common sense.

These farmers…were lied to and manipulated by a corporate machine that has been using its political influence to profit at the peril of the American farmer. This is not a partisan issue; this is about putting limits on corporate greed. I hope that all can agree that something needs to be done and that these rules are an important first step.

Here are the relevant documents:

 

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.

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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:

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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.

 

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