Pus, Sores, Tumors, & Filth: USDA's Deregulation of the Meat
Industry Draws Public Criticism

The Agribusiness Examiner
Issue # 82 July 27, 2000
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective
A.V. Krebs Editor\Publisher

Federal Food Safety Inspector: "Unwholesome, Adulterated Poultry
being allowed to go out to Consumers"

Thousands of pounds of chicken with tumors, pus, sores and scabs have been
passed onto unsuspecting consumers by the GoldKist plant in Guntersville,
Alabama in a failed USDA experimental inspection program begun last fall,
according to government records obtained by Elliot Jaspin of Cox Newspapers.

Despite Clinton administration officials and GoldKist, the nation's second
largest poultry processor, claiming that poultry leaving the plant was safe
and USDA's reassurance last week that its relatively new experimental
inspection program was a huge success, inspection records show, according
to Cox Newspapers, that the government tried to keep secret a picture of a
plant unable to keep diseased poultry from reaching the consumer.

As Jaspin reports: "Under the experimental program, company workers instead
of federal inspectors are supposed to find and remove substandard poultry.
But on some days last winter, the records show, company workers failed to
catch 25% of the diseased birds on one of the plant's two production lines."

Delmer Jones, head of the union that represents federal food safety
inspectors, told Jaspin that he sees the experimental program as an attempt
by the government and industry to brainwash consumers into believing it is
OK to eat what he derisively termed "wholesome diseased product."

"It's unwholesome, adulterated product," Jones said, "and it is being
allowed to go out to the consumer."

While chickens are not considered a threat to human health because poultry
diseases cannot be transmitted to human beings, federal inspectors point
out that diseased birds are supposed to be condemned because they are not
considered wholesome. Under the government's definition, these include
chickens with airsacculitis a common respiratory disease that leaves pus
inside the carcass or those with tumors, sores, scabs or infections.

Chicken from the Guntersville plant helps supply, among other customers,
nuggets for school lunch programs in 31 states, including Texas and Ohio.

Following the company inspection, federal employees take several samples of
10 birds every day to see how many defective carcasses slip by. In addition
to diseased birds, inspectors look for other indications the birds are
unwholesome, such as sores, bruises or parts of the digestive tract
clinging to the carcass, Jaspin adds.

Copies of reports on such samples obtained by Cox Newspapers through the
Freedom of Information Act showed that by the government's own accounting
methods, 40% of the samples taken from October until the following February
failed at least one of these tests. The most common cause of failure was
that a bird was diseased.

Under the experimental program, it is up to the company to decide how it
will improve its performance, but according to the Cox account the
government inspectors at Guntersville said the company did little, if
anything, to limit the number of diseased birds leaving the plant.

USDA officials initially refused to hand over the test reports, saying that
they were "linked to the deliberative process" and if members of the public
had access to the information they might "interpret the data and prejudge"
what the government might do with its experimental program. After Cox
Newspapers threatened to take USDA to court, the government reversed itself
and handed over the data.

When problems at the Guntersville plant first came to light, John Bekkers,
head of Gold Kist, said the public was being "misled by a few
union-activist" USDA officials. However, company officials later
acknowledged to federal investigators that they were having a problem with
diseases ravaging the Gold Kist flocks, according to a report by the
Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General.

New Meat and Poultry Inspection System Criticism called "Irresponsible" by USDA

Describing recent criticism of the USDA's new meat and poultry inspection
program as "irresponsible," Thomas Billy, administrator of the USDA's Food
Safety and Inspection Service, said last week that he was speaking out "to
stop a campaign of what I consider misinformation . . . the notion that we
are now allowing products to bear the mark of inspection that were not
permitted before is a misrepresentation of fact."

The new program which relegates inspection authority into the hands of
packing company employees has been attacked in the media as well as by a
federal court and the department's own inspector general.

A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D. C., recently declared
that the new inspection system "provides the industry with complete control
over production decisions and execution," and ruled it is illegal for the
USDA to allow company workers to replace government employees in inspecting
products at meat and poultry plants.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the
department's inspectors, sued USDA in 1998 to stop the project. But a
federal judge allowed the department to go ahead last fall, agreeing with
USDA that its inspectors were not required to handle every carcass so long
as they kept an eye on the meat. The appeals court decision sends the case
back to the lower court.

While Billy expressed "disappointment" with the Court's ruling he stressed
that under the new inspection system, "it is still our job to inspect, to
verify, to decide what products have earned the (USDA) mark of inspection.
We are not standing on the sidelines watching others play the game."

In its ruling the Appeals Court note that claiming to fulfill a legal
requirement to inspect meat and poultry carcasses by watching others
perform the task is like saying "umpires are pitchers because they
carefully watch others throw baseballs."

As the Des Moines Register's George Anthan reports, "the new inspection
program is designed to allow government inspectors to look for systemic
problems in packing plants while company employees carry out more routine
inspection duties. The inspectors' union has said the system breaks a
sacred trust with consumers."

USDA Seeking New Ruling Allowing Diseased Meat/Poultry Sales to the Public

In another proposed ruling that calls into question whether the U.S.
Department of Agriculture is more concerned with currying the favor of the
meat and poultry processing industry than it is protecting food consumers
the USDA is proposing a rule that would permit the sale of diseased meat
and poultry to the public.

Among the animal diseases that the USDA now says are safe for human
consumption if they are found in slaughtered meat and poultry include:
cancer; a pneumonia found in poultry called airsacculitis; glandular
swellings or lymphomas; sores; infectious arthritis, and diseases caused
by intestinal worms.

The USDA is accepting comments on this proposed rule until August 29, 2000.

Federal meat inspectors and consumer groups are protesting the move to
classify tumors and open sores as aesthetic problems, which permits the
meat to get the government's seal of approval , as a wholesome food

"I don't want to eat pus from a chicken that has pneumonia," said Wenonah
Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project.

Delmer Jones, a federal food inspector for 41 years, told Scripps Howard
News Service he's so revolted by the lowering of food wholesomeness
standards that he doesn't buy meat at the supermarket anymore because he
doesn't trust that it is safe to eat. "I eat very little to no meat, but
sardines and fish," said Jones, president of the National Joint Council of
Meat Inspection Locals. The union of some 7,000 meat inspectors is
affiliated with the American Federation of Government Employees. He said
he's trying to get his wife to stop eating meat.

The News Service reports that the union is battling related USDA plans to
rely on scientific testing of samples of butchered meats to determine the
wholesomeness of meat, rather than traditional item-by-item scrutiny by
federal inspectors.

USDA began carrying out the new policy as part of a pilot project in 24
slaughterhouses last October and plans to expand the system nationwide. It
will cover poultry, beef and pork. The agency has extended until Aug. 29
the time for the public to comment on the regulations and won't issue final
rules until after the comments are received.

Jones and consumer groups say production lines are moving so fast that
they can't catch all the diseased carcasses, and some are ending up on
supermarket shelves. "When I started inspecting, inspectors were looking at
13 birds a minute, then 40, and now it's 91 birds a minute with three
inspectors," Jones said. "You cannot do your job with 91 birds a minute."

Public comments on this proposed rule should be addressed to:

FSIS Docket Clerk Docket No. 97-036A
United States Department of Agriculture
Food Safety and Inspection Service
Room 102, Cotton Annex
300 12th Street, S.W.
Washington, DC 20250-3700

RE: Docket No. 97-036A

For more information, contact:

Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environmental Program 215
Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E.
Washington, DC 20003
(202) 546-4996

For technical information about this rule, contact:

Daniel Engeljohn, Director Regulation and Analysis Division
Food Safety and Inspection Service
(202) 720-5627

Food Industry Backed Senate Bill will Nullify State Laws
that Require Food Label Warnings

Last month on a voice vote by the Senate Agriculture Committee after no
hearing and little advance notice, legislation was approved that would
nullify state laws that require warnings on foods and dietary supplements
or regulate the handling of eggs and other products.

The bill's 35 sponsors, including Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of
South Dakota, according to the Associated Press's Philip Brasher, now are
looking for must-pass legislation to which they can attach the food
proposal and are not ruling out trying to put it on an agricultural
appropriations bill pending on the Senate floor.

"If a product needs a warning label then it shouldn't just be in one state,
it should be in all 50 states. . . . We're one country, we're not 50
countries," said Susan Stout, public affairs vice president of the Grocery
Manufacturers of America.

Critics of the proposal see the food industry's same strategy that it
employed in the organic standards act and chemical poison legislation:
supersede tough individual state legislation with watered down
industry-crafted national regulations.

The Senate bill, known as the National Uniformity for Food Act of 2000,
would bar states from imposing labeling and food safety standards that are
tougher than the Food and Drug Administration's. States would have to
petition the FDA for exemptions from the law. Opponents of the legislation
say it would effectively block state efforts to act in areas where FDA has
been ineffective or to goad the agency to regulate products.

Meanwhile, in a report released July 11, the General Accounting Office
(GAO) said consumers may be buying some potentially unsafe products because
FDA has not set a clear safety standard for new ingredients in dietary
supplements or issued regulations or guidance for safety-related
information on labels.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, Brasher reports, has
compiled a list of laws and regulations that could be affected by the
Senate bill. In addition to California's Proposition 65, they include: Laws
in at least 17 states, including California, Florida, Illinois and Texas,
that allow them to set tolerances for food additives that are more
stringent than FDA standards.

California's Proposition 65, requires a warning label on all products that
contain cancer-causing agents or substances that are toxic to the
reproductive system. After the law was imposed, the state used it to force
manufacturers to reduce lead levels in calcium supplements.

The law "has been very good at catching loopholes in federal protection,
and the feds have often responded by tightening their own standards once
California showed the way," David Roe, a lawyer who helped craft the
California law, told Brasher.

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