After tough negotiations between the Obama Administration and a mean-spirited and stingy Congress that cut USDA budgets to unprecedented lows, the agency is handing oversight of poultry to the producers in order to live within its anorexic means.
As Dana Milbank of the Washington Post puts it, this is
a proposal to allow chicken slaughterhouses to inspect themselves — eliminating those pesky federal monitors who have the annoying habit of taking diseased birds out of the food supply.
Even if the Obama administration were inclined to bring down capitalism with an orgy of overregulation, there isn’t enough money in the budget to enforce the rules on the books. That’s what the chicken fight is about: Spending cuts…are a form of de facto deregulation (my emphasis).
But that's not a half of it.
The New York Times account of this policy change notes that inspectors:
had observed numerous instances of poultry plant employees allowing birds contaminated with fecal matter or other substances to pass. And even when the employees try to remove diseased birds, they face reprimands….
The Agriculture Department proposal allows poultry plants to speed up their assembly lines to about 200 birds per minute from 140, hampering any effort to examine birds for defects.
Marion Nestle, Food Politics reports:
The U.S. poultry industry raises about 9 billion chickens and 80 million turkeys for human consumption each year. Meal made from their feathers is commonly added to feed for chickens, pigs, cattle, and fish. This could be a reentry route into the human food supply for such drugs.
Nicholas Kristof explains in the New York Times that these studies also found feather meal to contain
an antihistamine that is the active ingredient of Benadryl…[and] acetaminophen, the active ingredient in Tylenol. And feather-meal samples from China contained an antidepressant that is the active ingredient in Prozac.
Poultry-growing literature has recommended Benadryl to reduce anxiety among chickens, apparently because stressed chickens have tougher meat and grow more slowly. Tylenol and Prozac presumably serve the same purpose.
No ethical physician would prescribe a drug for prophylactic use in humans. Yet these drugs and others are routinely fed to food animals in order to reduce the cost of growing them and increase profits.
I have to agree with Marion:
I don’t know what the best system for inspection might be, but I’m quite sure that leaving food safety oversight to the discretion of the packers is not a good idea. Neither is speeding up the line. And neither is feeding chickens drugs that can affect human health.