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Part 1 - The Price of Cheap Chicken

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The Atlanta Journal Constitution
By Scott Bronstein - Staff writer
May 26, 1991 - Page C/1 

    First of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is failing so completely that the distinctive USDA seal of approval today no longer guarantees that chicken is safe to eat, according to 78 federal USDA inspectors at the nation's largest poultry plants. Every week throughout the South, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers, instead of being condemned and destroyed, the USDA inspectors said. America's love affair with chicken is creating unprecedented demands on the poultry industry.

Three columns of chickens, dangling by their feet, speed into the ear-splitting din of a cool, dank warehouse - a maze of birds in dizzy, mechanized motion.

The lines of bobbing broilers coil around half a dozen machines that eviscerate the fryers and thread past the rare human worker who, wearing a hairnet, cotton smock and black rubber boots, reaches out to snip with scissors at the occasional bird the machines miss.

It is an automated cascade triggered by consumers seeking low-cost, low-cholesterol fare in record numbers. And it carries a hidden price: contamination.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, responsible for ensuring that poultry products are wholesome, is failing so completely that the distinctive USDA seal of approval today no longer guarantees that chicken is safe to eat, according to 78 federal USDA inspectors at the nation's largest poultry plants.

Every week throughout the South, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers, instead of being condemned and destroyed, the USDA inspectors said. Consumer advocates, federal veterinarians, former USDA scientists and congressional experts also describe a poultry production system swamped by success and out of control.

"You know the USDA seal of approval we put on the chicken? Well, it means nothing now. It's meaningless," said Gail Duncan, an inspector at the Trussville, Ala., plant owned by Atlanta-based Gold Kist Inc., the nation's third-largest poultry company.

Senior USDA officials call Mrs. Duncan, a 42-year-old mother of two who has been a federal poultry inspector for nine years, and hundreds of inspectors like her are the consumer's "first line of defense" on poultry processing lines. She has become so concerned that chicken is no longer wholesome she has not served it to her own family for a year. Sixty other inspectors said they also were so concerned that they no longer eat chicken.

"Chickens we would routinely condemn 10 years ago are now getting right through to the consumer," said Mrs. Duncan. "What's so bad is the people are paying taxes for us to do this job and we can't do it. We are not being allowed to protect the consumer."

84 inspectors interviewed

In all, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed 84 federal poultry inspectors from 37 processing plants in Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina and Mississippi. Included were inspectors at plants operated by the eight largest poultry companies in the United States. Among the findings:

"Last summer, they were bringing plastic tubs into the plant and they had maggots crawling all over them," said Susan Ridgway, 42, an inspector at the ConAgra plant in Dalton, Ga. "These tubs would have been loaded up with chicken parts if we hadn't caught it. It happens all the time."

USDA scientists, industry experts and consumer advocates say that millions of birds leave plants every week contaminated by the unseen bacteria that cause serious food poisoning.

To meet spiraling demand, chickens today are slaughtered and processed by high-speed automated machinery. By their design, the automated lines spread bacteria and contamination, industry experts said.

While the demand for chicken has soared in recent years, so has the incidence of food poisoning from salmonella and campylobacter bacteria. Every year, millions of people get sick and several thousand die, scientists at the U.S Centers for Disease Control estimate. The number of individual U.S. food poisoning cases caused by salmonella alone increased 116 percent in the last two decades - up to half due to chicken products, the CDC said.

Must be 'cooked properly'

Poultry processors strongly defend their products.

Industry officials are keenly aware that it would be economic suicide to ignore quality control. Consumer confidence is the keystone of their success.

"We do not put out a product that is unwholesome. We simply would not do that," said Dr. James Whitmore, vice president for research and quality assurance at Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest poultry processor.

Paul G. Brower, a spokesman for Gold Kist, agreed. "We spend a great deal of time and money and hire people who are very thoroughly trained in quality control to be sure that we produce, process and market a safe, sanitary, wholesome product." Processed chicken is contaminated with salmonella and other bacteria. But they think the CDC is simply wrong in estimating that millions are getting food poisoning from chicken.

It would cost far too much to produce cleaner chicken, industry officials said, and they believe that consumers would be reluctant to pay the price. Thanks to an intensive investment in high-speed processing machinery, chicken is today the cheapest meat consumers can buy. In fact, a whole chicken actually costs less today per pound than 40 years ago.

Poultry processors could produce chickens completely free of bacteria by irradiating them, but consumers appear to be more frightened of this technique than by the threat of bacteria.

Industry officials say that as long as consumers thoroughly cook poultry, however, there is no danger of food poisoning.

"The chicken is without a doubt wholesome and healthy - as long as it's cooked properly," said Dr. Kenneth N. May, a spokesman for the industry's trade group, the National Broiler Council.

Poultry companies and the USDA, in effect, today increasingly depend on consumers to protect themselves - despite a federal food inspection system that costs taxpayers $417 million a year. What inspectors miss at the processing plant must be caught in the kitchen.

Even trained federal inspectors can often miss the subtle signs that might indicate any of a dozen diseases. And, without a microscope, it is impossible for anyone to tell whether chickens are covered with bacteria.

The most vigilant consumer cannot control the preparation of chicken in restaurant kitchens, which cook about 40 percent of the chicken produced today. Some 25,000 fast-food outlets have added chicken to their menus since 1977.

It is equally difficult for anyone to obtain a firsthand look at how plants process poultry.

Of the nation's 15 leading poultry processors, only Gold Kist and Seaboard Farms allowed a reporter to tour a processing plant. On the day of the tours, workers and inspectors seemed to follow proper procedures to ensure that only wholesome chicken was shipped.

Four USDA-approved commercial testing laboratories in the Southeast refused to conduct poultry salmonella and campylobacter contamination tests for the Journal-Constitution. Brian Shelton, lab manager for Pathogen Control Associates, echoed other lab managers when he explained why: "I would expect an extremely high percentage of the chickens would test positive. Our poultry industry clients wouldn't like that."

Bigger role for industry

Growing health hazards posed by chicken are the byproduct of the industry's dizzying success and widespread government deregulation of poultry processing, critics believe.

Commercial chickens are raised in crowded "grow-out houses" and slaughtered at high speed by automated machinery - both of which can increase contamination, they say. By law, each bird must be inspected -but the lines move so fast that thorough examination is all but impossible, inspectors say.

Now the Agriculture Department has plans to allow production lines, which have already doubled or tripled their speed, to move even faster.

Without the money to hire more inspectors to meet the increased workload, the government is turning an increasing share of the safety responsibilities over to the industry.

"They're inspecting more and more chickens, with fewer and fewer people. And the lines run faster and faster, and salmonella contamination is growing greater and greater," said Carol Tucker Foreman, assistant secretary for food and consumer services under President Carter. Ms. Foreman now is a consumer advocate in Washington.

No government or regulatory testing for bacteria is regularly done at any U.S. poultry plant today. Scientists don't have enough test data to even know how few bacteria it takes to make someone sick, so regulators have no idea where to set a safe limit.

Three times in the past five years, the National Academy of Sciences urged regular testing for the bacteria that cause food poisoning. To ensure consumer safety, the academy also recommended changes in the slaughter and processing. The suggestions were largely ignored by USDA, according to academy reports.

Congressional attempts to improve regulatory enforcement have also met with little success. When legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate four years ago to strengthen poultry inspection, the bill never made it out of committee. It was the last significant congressional effort at change.

State among top producers

Americans now consume as much chicken each year as they once consumed in a decade.

Pacing the increased demand for chicken, millions of birds go whirring down conveyor lines daily in slaughterhouses in Georgia and other Southeastern states. Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas produce half the chicken Americans eat and much of the chicken eaten around the world.

As the speed of the lines increases, there are too few federal inspectors to ensure that poultry products are free of disease and contamination, USDA inspectors, congressional experts and consumer advocates said.

The number of USDA meat and poultry inspectors has dropped 7.5 percent, from 7,758 inspectors in 1975 to 7,174 today. In that same period, the number of chickens produced in the United States and requiring federal inspection jumped 100 percent.

Hundreds of vacant poultry inspector positions have gone unfilled for lack of funding. The Southeast has the most acute shortage, with 217 of 1,816 positions unfilled last month.

USDA officials say they have handled staff shortages by relaxing the inspection standards and by turning inspection over to the companies.

"We don't do all the product checks we should be doing," said Dr. James D. Willis, Southeast regional director of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Sometimes we have to sacrifice those because of staff shortages."

Rotten meat is easy to spot. But the question of microbiological safety of chicken is a far more urgent problem.

Microscopic bacteria like salmonella occur naturally on chickens and, though not harmful to them, can be deadly to humans.

Many scientists believe the salmonella contamination rate has doubled in 20 years. Up to 80 percent of the chicken coming from poultry plants is contaminated with salmonella, according to an unreleased 1989 USDA draft report in which analysts tested 1,500 carcasses at five large Southeastern poultry plants. That compares with about 10 percent for beef or pork.

The presence in chicken of campylobacter bacteria is higher still. Although not as well-known as salmonella, the bacteria are thought to cause twice as much food poisoning.

Dr. Norman J. Stern, a USDA microbiologist in Athens and an authority on campylobacter, recently found 98 percent of the ready-to-eat store-bought chickens he tested in Athens contaminated with the bug.

"The average chicken you buy today in any store has enough campylobacter on it to make 1,000 people very sick," he said. But, he added, "nobody eats raw chicken, so nobody gets those doses."

Ralph George, 54, an on-line inspector at the ConAgra plant in Dalton, like m any inspectors feels trapped between the speeding lines and the need to protect the consumer. "I'm ashamed to even let people know I'm a USDA inspector. There are thousands of diseased and unwholesome birds going right on down the lines that we can't catch."

Map: [Images not available] The poultry belt (Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina) The United States leads in poultry production, and Arkansas, Georgia and Alabama produce nearly one-half of American chicken. Each dot represents the location of major chicken processing plants / Duffy Dolan / staff Map: Georgia's chicken centers (shows the locations of the state's chicken processing plants (Murray, Ellijay, Gainesville, Cornelia, Dalton, Cumming, Canton, Carrollton, Atlanta, Athens, Elberton, Bethlehem, Lovejoy, Macon, Buena Vista, Dawson, Camilla, Douglas, Claxton) / Duffy Dolan / staff Color photo: Down automated processing lines like these speed millions of chickens on their trip to grocery stores or restaurants / Dwight Ross Jr. / Staff

Go to Part 2 - Chicken: At What Cost?
Go to Sidebar: CHICKEN: HOW SAFE?

Recommended Article: Something Smells Fowl
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