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Sidebar: CHICKEN: HOW SAFE?

This is the sidebar accompanying the first of the 2 part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" by Scott Bronstein, staff writer, Atlanta Journal Constitution. Published May 26, 1991


 
The price of cheap chicken
-Scott Bronstein, staff writer - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - 5/26/91

Sidebar to the first of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken. Includes excerpts from interviews from the following poultry inspectors on the safety of processed chicken: Pat Godrey, 44, an inspector at Tyson's Springdale, Ark., plant, Ronnie Sarratt, 40, an inspector at the Tyson plant in Gadsden, Ala., and Richard Simmons, 51, an inspector at ConAgra's Gainesville plant.

In all, 84 federal poultry inspectors were interviewed at 37 processing plants in five states, including plants operated by the eight largest poultry companies in the United States.

Quotes from three poultry industry inspectors on contamination, disease and salvage.

CONTAMINATION:
Thousands of birds tainted or stained with feces, which a decade ago would have been condemned, are now rinsed and sold daily, 81 inspectors said.

"Would you go out to a pasture with a chicken, cut him up, then drop him into a fresh manure pile and eat him? That's what the product is like coming from chicken plants today."
  
- Pat Godrey, 44, an inspector at Tyson's Springdale, Ark., plant

DISEASE:
Thousands of diseased birds pass from processing lines to stores every day, 75 inspectors said. Many chickens have pus seeping from their body cavities. Others with cancerous tumors often get through, 69 inspectors said.

"I've had bad air sac birds that had yellow pus visibly coming out of their insides, and I was told to save the breast meat off them and even save the second joint of the wing. You might get those breasts today at a store in a package of breast fillets. And you might get the other part in a package of buffalo wings."
   - Ronnie Sarratt, 40, an inspector at the Tyson plant in Gadsden, Ala.

SALVAGE:
Poultry plants today often "salvage" meat, cutting away visibly diseased or contaminated sections and selling the rest as packaged wings, legs or breasts, 70 inspectors said.

"Practically every bird now, no matter how bad, is salvaged. This meat is not wholesome. I would not want to eat it. I would never, in my wildest dreams, buy cut-up parts at a store today."
   - Richard Simmons, 51, an inspector at ConAgra's Gainesville plant

Color photo: [Image not available] live chickens packed in a warehouse / Michael A. Schwarz / staff


 A day to forget: `The most sick I've ever been'
Food poisoning afflicts millions - and some die
-Scott Bronstein, staff writer - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - 5/26/91

Sidebar to the first of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken. Interviews with victims of food poisoning, caused by handling contaminated chicken.

At least 2 million people were poisoned last year by salmonella bacteria and up to 2,000 died, scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate. And at least twice as many people were poisoned by little-known bacteria called campylobacter, they believe. 

At least 2 million people were poisoned last year by salmonella bacteria and up to 2,000 died, scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimate. And at least twice as many people were poisoned by little-known bacteria called campylobacter, they believe. In both groups, up to half got sick eating chicken, they say.

Mike Quinn was one of them. Twelve hours later, Mr. Quinn was convulsed by cramps and diarrhea so severe that he lost 10 pounds in 48 hours. Doctors at Piedmont Hospital's emergency room diagnosed food poisoning caused by campylobacter. The microscopic one-cell organisms left his colon raw and bleeding. "The bacteria had just eaten it up. Stripped inside out," Mr. Quinn said. He was hospitalized for five days last November. He still has not completely recovered.

In all, the USDA estimates that salmonella and campylobacter infections cost more than $2 billion a year in medical expenses, lost productivity, product recalls and related costs.

"The fact that poultry consumption and the number of salmonella cases are rising at similar rates doesn't prove correlation," said the CDC's Morris Potter. "But I do think it is a cause for great concern."

The elderly, the very young, and those with a depressed immune system are particularly vulnerable to food poisoning, say medical experts like Dr. Potter.

Some people find it hard to believe that chicken could be so dangerous.

Deborah Croney, 41, was one of 130 people who got sick from salmonella last September after eating a chicken barbecue dinner at the Seymour Apple Festival, 30 miles from Springfield, Mo. A half-dozen, like Ms. Croney, were hospitalized.

"I had a really hard time accepting that it was the chicken. I couldn't hardly believe it," she said. "This was the most sick I've ever been. I felt like I might die."

Photo: {Image not available] Mike Quinn (right) of Stone Mountain barbecues chicken with help from neighbor Bill Clarey / Michael A. Schwarz / Staff


USDA eases up on plants six times in 15 years
On-line inspectors can't slow production
-Scott Bronstein, staff writer - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - 5/26/91

Sidebar to the first of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken. An examination of six regulation changes in 15 years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that weakened the poultry inspection system.

Six times in 15 years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed its procedures in ways that weakened the poultry inspection system.

Mandatory inspection of all chickens began in 1957, after the Poultry Products Inspection Act was approved by Congress.

That law was broadened a decade later with the Wholesome Poultry Products Act.

In 1977, the USDA allowed companies to rinse, rather than cut out, chicken contaminated with fecal matter.

The companies petitioned for the change when they discovered that their new machinery ruptured intestines and spilled fecal matter into the bird carcasses, say consumer advocates.

In the late 1970s many plants were allowed to develop "salvage" lines, where meat believed unaffected by disease or contamination was trimmed from chicken carcasses and sold to consumers as cut-up parts or processed meat.

In 1984, the department allowed plants to raise production-line speeds and take on some inspection duties. They were allowed to trim bruises, broken bones or other bad parts marked by inspectors without an inspector watching the trim operation.

A year later, the department no longer allowed its on-line inspectors to slow the lines. Now only supervisors have that authority.

And production lines in some plants were allowed to speed up again in 1986.

During the last four years the USDA has been experimenting with a pilot program in a Puerto Rican plant, allowing company employees to do even more inspection.

Poultry inspection: Weakening the standards

Important events since poultry inspection began, leading to increased line speeds and companies doing more of the inspection. Each chicken represents 10 birds per minute per inspector.

1957: Poultry Products Inspection Act passed. Inspectors look at 16 birds per minute.

1978: "Modified Traditional" inspection begins. Now inspectors watch 22 birds per minute.

1984: U.S. Department of Agriculture allows companies to adopt "New Line Speed." Inspectors now watch 30 birds per minute.

1986: "Streamlined Inspection System" cuts number of inspectors by a third at some plants. Inspectors now watch 35 birds per minute.

1991: USDA is experimenting with faster line speeds to test effects on contamination.

Sources: USDA officials, inspectors / Duffy Dolan / staff


How chickens get to your table

-Scott Bronstein, staff writer - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - 5/26/91

Sidebar to the first of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken. Full-page graphic explains the path of processed chicken from the egg to your dinner table, including special notes in each segment highlighting the dangers inherent in that section for contamination or worker injury.

Production line: Each year, high-tech poultry plants process enough chicken to stretch from the Earth to the moon and back again.  Along the journey are many places where chicken meat can become contaminated by bacterial pathogens, such as salmonella or campylobacter, that cause food poisoning. There are also other dangers.

How chickens get to your table (five steps):
(Reference Note: This was a five-step full-page graphic explaining and diagramming the path of chicken from the egg to your dinner table. Contents are outlined in NOTES field below).  

1. EGG:
Contamination can begin in the egg because the hen that lays it may be contaminated. Eggs are laid in breeder farm houses, each sheltering 9,000 and 900 males for high productivity. About 85 percent of the hens lay one egg a day every day of their lives. Each day, the eggs are collected and sent to the hatchery.

2. HATCHERY:
(Drawing of incubator, hatching, throwing, inoculation and debeaking areas)

INCUBATOR ROOMS

HATCHING ROOMS

THROWING ROOM

To keep up with the hundreds of thousands of chicks that hatch each day, workers in this room literally scoop up large handfuls of chicks every second, throwing them several feet through the air onto conveyor belts

INOCULATION AND DEBEAKING

The fluffy yellow chicks, no bigger than baseballs, are inoculated, in some plants debeaked (beaks blunted on hot plates to reduce danger), and transported to grow-out houses.

3. GROW-OUT HOUSE
(drawing shows 40-foot wide, 400-foot long grow-out house, and a cross-section of one segment of the facility)

DANGER
Contaminated feed: As much as 30 percent of the feed mixture may be contaminated.
Chickens eat feces: Crowded into grow-out houses, the birds eat one another's feces.
Chickens' feathers: They become covered in feces and contribute to contamination in slaughterhouses.

4. SLAUGHTERHOUSE:
Diagram (letters A through K) shows path of chicken entering plant on conveyor belt though the processing area to the chill tank

    A. Chickens are dumped from their cages onto a conveyor belt

    B. Workers hang the birds upside down by hooking both feet into moving shackles at about one bird per second. Injuries: fingers can be caught and pulled off by the quickly moving shackles.

    C. The chickens are sprayed with water and stunned by an 18-volt electric shock

    D. A mechanized blade draws a quick long slash across each chicken's neck and blood begins pouring onto the floor and into drains.

    E. After the blood has drained, the birds are dragged through a tank of scalding water to loosen their feathers - scalding pool 135 degrees Fahrenheit.

DANGER: All birds are dragged through the 135-degree water which becomes brown and brackish from all the feces, dirt and blood. Some bacteria, including salmonella, survive temperatures up to 140 degrees.

    F. The feather removing machine pummels the dripping and dirty feathers off the carcasses. The feathers drop in soggy piles to the ground and are swept away in a refuse drain.

DANGER: The rapid pounding of feathers and chickens creates a thick mist of dirt and any bacteria. The birds pass through the same "fingers" and any bacteria may actually be further beaten into their skin.

   G. Machines and workers sever the birds' heads and open their body cavities, laying the guts in a pile.

DANGER:
Force: At fast line speeds the machines can rip apart intestines, spilling fecal material all over the birds' insides. Speed: Line speeds are so fast today that most inspectors say they are unable to catch many contaminated and diseased birds going by.

    H. USDA on-line inspectors check every bird for a dozen different diseases, tumors and infection, as well as for feces and gall contamination. They have 1 to two seconds per bird.

    I. Infections are sucked out with a vacuum cleaner, and skin tumors, unless two or more are found, are removed and the chicken is salvaged. J. After inspection, the viscera are cut from the chickens and they are given several last washes and further trims.

    K. The chickens are sent to the chill tank, where as many as 5,000 may be cooled in a water bath at one time.

DANGER: Contaminated tank - Inspectors say that hundreds of birds every day arrive at the tank with feces or gall contamination still smeared on them. Clean birds could then pick up bacteria.

 5. PROCESSING
(diagram - letters A through B - shows path of processed chicken as it is weighed, graded, and sent to grocery stores)

    A. Chickens are weighed, graded by size, and cut up, packaged whole or prepared for specially packaged food items.

DANGER: Staffing: There is often only one inspector for all processing and deboning operations in two or three different plants. Spillage: Inspectors say chicken meat routinely falls onto floors in processing and is often thrown back on the line with no washing.

    B. Dozens of workers stand side by side, making the same cuts or slices in each carcass as it passes by at the rate of one every few seconds.

DANGER: Injuries: the processing lines have been cited as the chief cause of worker injuries; specifically, repetitive trauma injuries to the hands, wrists, arms or shoulders. As many as one-third to one-half of a company's work force may suffer from such injuries.

* Poultry plants produced 25.5 billion pounds of chicken meat in 1990.
* For every person in the United States, there were 24 broilers slaughtered and inspected last year.

Figures are for a typical industrialized broiler operation and will vary from plant to plant.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Gold Kist and Seaboard Farms / Duffy Dolan / staff


High-tech plants churn out poultry - but add to risk

-Scott Bronstein, staff writer - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - 5/26/91

Sidebar to the first of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken.

Within a few years, industry officials hope to automate poultry processing almost completely. Consumer activists and scientists warn that the chicken produced by such plants may be more contaminated than ever.

Among the contamination problems caused by automated processing: dirty water in tank used for soaking chicken to soften their feathers, bacterial mist, ruptured birds, an ineffective washing process, and cross-contamination.

Whir of automation: A mechanical revolution has made automated poultry processing a science, but some say it has made sanitation worse.

Within a few years, industry officials hope to automate poultry processing almost completely. Consumer activists and scientists warn that the chicken produced by such plants may - by their design - be more contaminated than ever.

Modern chicken slaughter and processing are a testimony to the high technology of the late 20th century, a product of millions of dollars of research money engaging the best minds at universities across the South. Their engineering expertise created sprawling factories where 200,000 chickens a day enter one end and pallets of family-sized ready-to-buy packages of filleted breasts leave at the other end.

"The poultry industry has enjoyed a technical revolution over the last two decades, analogous to the invention of the cotton gin in the 19th century," said Thomas Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

"The problem is that with the new mechanization there's a lot more contamination that routinely occurs, and no one is doing anything about it," he said.

A quick ride

Nearly every large company now has "integrated" operations, meaning that it typically runs in one location all aspects of processing, from the feed mill to the rendering mill, to the hatcheries, to the slaughterhouse, processing and packaging areas.

Chickens begin their ride through a slaughterhouse by brushing up against an electrically charged metal grate carrying about 18 volts of electricity. This stuns the birds.

Then, at the rate of about 140 birds per minute, their throats are cut by a circular 8-inch rotating blade that severs their main artery.

As the carcasses move onto the processing line, critics say, contamination caused by the automated machinery begins. One recent USDA study found that just over half the chickens at one Puerto Rican processing plant were contaminated with salmonella bacteria going in, but three-fourths were contaminated coming out.

Danger points

USDA scientists and consumer experts say the problem areas include:

"None of the new changes brought into the production process were designed to reduce the level of bacterial contamination. They were always designed to increase production levels," said Rod Leonard, who served as federal administrator for meat and poultry inspection under President Johnson.

"The effect all these changes have on the quality of the poultry, its wholesomeness, is they raise the level of contamination," said Mr. Leonard, now a consumer advocate at the Community Nutrition Institute, a group based in Washington, D.C., that does policy analysis in food, nutrition and agriculture.

Automation has become the rule in most slaughterhouses.

In 1967 a slaughter operation typically required about 100 employees. Today, only 35 employees are needed. The rest is done by machine, according to Lamar Rice of Stork Gamco Inc., one of the leading poultry machine manufacturers in the country. In 24 years, 14 of 22 different jobs formerly done manually have been automated, he said.

"I believe that within two to five years this industry will be 95 percent automated," said Harold Ford, executive vice president of the Southeastern Poultry and Egg Association.

'A terrible thing to do'

It was in 1977 that the industry persuaded USDA to allow the washing of contaminated birds, instead of requiring that they be trimmed. Today, the official directly responsible for that decision regrets it.

"It turned out to be a terrible thing to do," says Carol Tucker Foreman, a consumer advocate who was assistant secretary for food and consumer services under President Carter.

"By allowing the companies to wash instead of cut meat away, we created a financial incentive for them to be sloppy in the evisceration of birds," she said. "We took away one of the incentives to run clean, safe lines."

Color photo: [Images not available] Workers at a Seaboard Farms plant in Canton make final cuts to chicken carcasses / Michael A. Schwarz / Staff --Color photo: Chicks ride a conveyor belt toward an inoculation and debeaking station at the Seaboard Farms plant in Canton / Michael A. Schwarz / Staff

See Full Articles:
  - CHICKEN: HOW SAFE? The Price of Cheap Chicken (Part 1 of 2)

  - CHICKEN: HOW SAFE? Chicken: At What Cost? (Part 2 of 2)

Return to Articles Archive: Meat and Dairy Industry

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