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Playing Chicken with Food Safety

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Factory Farming page, Health Issues page and our Food Safety Research Center page.

The other day there was this guy in a chicken suit on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting outside the White House. Silly, but the reason the chicken and other demonstrators had crossed the avenue was to deliver a petition of more than half a million names, speaking out against new rules the US Department of Agriculture wants to put into effect - bad rules that would transfer much of the work inspecting pork and chicken and turkey meat from trained government inspectors to the processing companies themselves. Talk about putting the fox in the henhouse!

The revised regulations also call for a substantial speeding up of the disassembly line along which workers use sharp knives and often painful, repetitive hand motions to cut up and clean carcasses of dirt, blood and other contaminants that can cause infection and sickness. Not only will this increase in speed - by 25 percent or more - raise the chance of injury, it makes it easier to miss anything wrong - even deadly - with the meat. To compensate for that, the rules also call for an increase in the use of antimicrobial chemicals sprayed on the meat - but those sprays may actually damage the health of the workers. Inspectors and meat packing employees report instances of asthma, burns, skin rashes, sinus trouble and other respiratory ailments, some of them severe. What's more, when complaints were made about health or hygiene, the response from employers often came in the form of threats and reprimands.

According to the Agriculture Department, their plan will increase food safety, but early last month, the Government Accountability Office - the GAO - reported on a years-old pilot program for some of these new rules and determined that the data on which they were based was, in the words of The Washington Post, "incomplete and antiquated." One study used data that was more than 20 years old.

The Agriculture Department says the new rules will save the Federal budget $30 million annually, but compared to the more than $256 million it will save the poultry industry every year, that's chickenfeed. In reality, as Tom Philpott, the food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones magazine, succinctly put it: " The Obama administration has been pushing a deregulatory sop to a powerful industry based on a shoddy analysis."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that "each year roughly one in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases." Every state in the union has seen an outbreak in foodborne illness over the last decade; men, women and children made sick by E.coli, salmonella and other pathogens in everything from meat to produce, cereal, even peanut butter. The progressive website Truthout notes that "Americans are 110 times more likely to die from contaminated food than terrorism  at an annual cost to the economy of nearly $80 billion."   


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