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BEWARE CONTAMINATED CHICKEN

Strange Featherbedfellows

Despite millions of people falling ill each year, USDA continues to stamp every thigh, breast and wing with its seal of approval , prompting many to ask, "Who's minding the henhouse?" Sadly, USDA has historically placed the interests of the influential poultry industry ahead of those of the poultry-consuming public. In 1993, for example, then-USDA chief Mike Espy was asked about using warning labels to alert consumers that poultry products might contain pathogens. Espy answered: "We wouldn't do anything like that. We don't want to have a chilling effect on sales." A year later Espy resigned after being caught accepting illicit favors from the same poultry industry that he had promised to clean up. Time magazine labeled the affair, "symptomatic of the cozy bond that has long existed between USDA and those it is charged with overseeing."

Evidence of this cozy bond can be seen in the slaughterhouse as well as the halls of power. Over the years, USDA has permitted the poultry industry to steadily increase the speeds at which birds are slaughtered, all while lowering health standards and doing little to modernize the government's meat inspection system. The General Accounting Office, the investigative wing of Congress, calls USDA's inspection system, "only marginally better than it was 87 years ago when it was first put in place." Meat inspectors are still limited to using "sniff and poke" methods to identify suspect chickens. But it is physically impossible for inspectors to see, smell or feel microbial pathogens. A new, more scientific inspection system (known by the acronym "HACCP"), calls for microbial testing and increased industry responsibility. HACCP has been agreed upon in principle, but tangible improvements remain years away. Meanwhile, the poultry industry is doing its best to dilute the proposed changes.

There's more. During the anti-regulatory heydey of the 1980s, USDA actually cut its meat inspection staff, and today some 1,370 inspector positions remain vacant. As a result, meat and poultry are, "more contaminated than ever before," says the independent Government Accountability Project (GAP) which represents government whistleblowers, including many federal meat inspectors.

Meat inspectors are among the most outspoken critics of the status quo. In two recent reports by GAP, inspector depositions make clear that unsanitary conditions are rampant in the industry. With the chicken itself, inspectors report that:

* Up to 25 percent of slaughtered chickens on the inspection line are covered with feces, bile and feed.

* Shipments of meat as large as 25,000 pounds are contaminated with everything from black grease and metal shards to digestive contents and dead insects. In one case, inspectors retained 14,000 pounds of chicken speckled with metal flakes, 5,000 pounds of rancid chicken necks and 721 pounds of green chicken that made employees gag from the smell.

* Animals that are dead or diseased are slaughtered anyway and end up in the supermarket.

* Chickens are soaked in chlorine baths to remove slime and odor.

The GAP reports are also replete with inspector testimony of tremendous filth in chicken slaughterhouses. For instance:

* Mixtures accumulate in coolers, on walls, floors and equipment including human and animal excrement, chicken parts, blood, oil, grease, glass, plastic, wood chips, rust, paint, cement, dust, insecticides and rodent droppings.

* Maggots and other larvae breed in storage and transport tubs and boxes, on the floor, in processing equipment and packaging, and drop onto the conveyer belt from meat splattered on the ceiling above.

* Some slaughterhouses that by law must be inspected at least once per shift, sometimes go up to two weeks without inspection.

While acknowledging that, "It would be irresponsible to generalize based on these examples," GAP warns that, "it also would be irresponsible to conclude that these findings are aberrations."

Nine to Nowhere

In 1994, an undercover investigation by Wall Street Journal writer Tony Horwitz added treacherous working conditions and dismally low wages to the horrors inside chicken slaughterhouses. Horwitz, who was employed in several poultry slaughterhouses, described the work as, "faster than ever before, subject to Orwellian control and electronic surveillance, and reduced to limited tasks that are numbingly repetitive, potentially crippling and stripped of any meaningful skills or chance to develop them. The work often was so fast-paced that it took on a zany chaos," Horwitz recalled, "with arms and boxes and poultry flying in every direction. At break times I would find fat globules and blood speckling my glasses, bits of chicken caught in my collar, water and slime soaking my feet and ankles, and nicks covering my wrists."

Steadily increasing poultry sales in supermarkets and restaurants are translating into growing numbers of such slaughterhouse jobs and increased abuse of more and more workers, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Currently more than 80 percent of slaughterhouse jobs are held mostly by minorities and women between 18 and 25 years of age making five or six dollars an hour. Tragically, for many of them, work on the poultry line represents the best--or only--employment available. "While American industry reaps the benefits of a new, high-technology era," Horwitz mused, "it has consigned a large class of workers to a Dickensian time warp, laboring not just for meager wages but also under dehumanized and often dangerous conditions."

Manure Happens (and happens and happens...)

While no one will ever accuse chickens of overrunning the American West and trampling precious wildlife habitat the way cattle do, the production of seven billion chickens each year does carry a steep environmental pricetag. Consider the following:

* WATER: It takes about 660 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken, including the skin and bones. With the same water, farmers could produce 16 pounds of broccoli, enough soybeans for three pounds of tofu or enough wheat for nearly five pounds of whole wheat bread. Overall, US poultry operations use 96.5 billion gallons of water annually, enough water to meet all the yearly domestic needs of nearly 4.5 million North Americans.

* GRAIN: It takes roughly six pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken.

* ENERGY: It takes the equivalent of about one-fifth a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of chicken. That's eight times as much fossil fuel as is needed to produce the same amount of protein from tofu.

* TOPSOIL: For every pound of meat produced, we lose about five pounds of topsoil in growing the soybeans, corn and other grains used as feed.

The chicken industry is not only a sinkhole for tremendous natural resources, it is also directly responsible for widespread pollution of North American waterways and groundwater. Although modest amounts of chicken manure can be a valuable soil amendment when properly utilized, the chicken industry is producing vastly more manure than croplands can handle. (For this and other strictly economic reasons, chicken manure is sometimes "recycled" and fed back to other livestock.) Consider that one large chicken complex produces roughly 125 tons of manure each day.

It's not only manure that threatens our water. According to a 1994 report by the University of California, environmental contaminants from factory farms can include excrement, production water, storm water runoff, dead animals, dust, silage, bedding, contaminated products, medicines and chemicals.

The state of Arkansas provides a good illustration of the environmental woes associated with factory farming of chickens. In this state, chickens generate as much waste as eight million people, more than triple Arkansas's human population. In 1992, the Washington Post discovered that in the state's five northwestern counties, where the chicken industry is centered, nearly half of the region's 600 miles of streams are so polluted with chicken and livestock waste that they are off-limits to swimming. Fecal coliform bacteria and nitrates from the manure have contaminated virtually every tributary of the once-pristine, trout-filled White River, threatening the drinking water for 300,000 people.

A country away in British Columbia things look equally grim. There a recent government study identified the poultry industry as the source of heavy groundwater contamination. "If we're having trouble now with excess manure," asks Environment Canada economist Roger McNeil, "what's it going to be like in 20 years?"

Conclusions

We needn't wait that long for a glimpse of the future. Today's tragic realities provide a looking glass into what lies ahead unless we dramatically curb our appetite for chicken. We can expect more children hospitalized and killed by contaminated chicken; more adult's lives cut short by heart disease; and more grief-stricken families mourning the loss of loved ones. We can look forward to more rivers and streams choked with manure and more drinking water tainted with nitrates and herbicides; more slaughterhouse workers facing perilous tasks, on-the-job indignities and lousy pay; and much more animal suffering.

Yet, despite the horrors and bleak forecast, consumers continue to sleepwalk through the checkout line with shopping carts full of fowl. One can only wonder, when will North Americans awaken from this nightmare?

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Written by: Steve Lustgarden with Debra Holton, Earth Save International


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