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article imageOp-Ed: USDA modernization will end up being hazardous to our health

By Karen Graham     Jul 28, 2014 in Politics
Most people are better off not knowing how the chicken they buy at the supermarket is raised and processed. Knowing that information would make people swear off eating meat for the rest of their lives. But new regulations aren't going to improve things.
Factory farms in the United States raise more than 9.0 billion "broiler" chickens for meat and 300 million layers for eggs annually. In a process that creates the most meat in the shortest period of time possible, the chicks are often beak-trimmed at a very early age, and then housed in "grower houses" containing up to 20,000 chickens each.
The process used today decreases the growing time by half what it was in the 1950s, and with antibiotics, vitamins and minerals, broilers today reach ideal slaughter weight using a third less feed. This means a broiler chick can reach your table in as little as seven weeks from the time it is hatched.
The big deal with chickens has been the contamination and increasing number of food-borne illnesses seen in this country over the past several years. Monica Potts, writing for The Guardian says the word "clean" is a relative standard when talking about meat. Because of the way the chickens are raised, they stand in their own feces, and because they are specially bred for large breasts, their legs are often weak, causing them to often end up laying in the filth and even dying.
If the chickens make it through this period, the slaughter process is even more disturbing, so much so that the poultry industry has lobbied many states to ban videotaping of the process by concerned citizens. At the slaughterhouse, once killed, they are thrown into chlorinated baths, or sprayed with industrial-grade chemicals to make them "clean." The process, from growing house to slaughterhouse has been under the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), charged with protecting the public from food that could make us sick.
But the times, they are a-changing. The USDA is finalizing a rule called the "Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection", and it could be approved this week. But "modernization" is also relative, especially in this case. The USDA proposes to replace government inspectors with untrained company employees, as well as allow slaughterhouses to speed up the killing of chickens at a much faster rate.
Critics of the proposed modernization rule say the use of untrained inspectors is a step down, essentially "privatizing" poultry inspections, while reducing the number of USDA inspectors. Another concern is worker safety. The rule would increase the number of chickens being inspected per minute from 140 to 175 chickens flying by the eyes of the inspector. Tony Corbo of Food and Water Watch says it's like letting the fox in the chicken coop because why would a company employee want to raise the ire of their boss by stopping the production line if he sees a chicken fly by covered in feces.
The real problem not being addressed adequately by the USDA is the increase in the number of food-borne illnesses in the United States, due in part to the shortage of government inspectors. According to the CDC, more than 1.2 million cases of Salmonella infection occur in the U.S. each year resulting in 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths. This is what is really astounding: Salmonella is not one of the diseases the USDA can regulate by stopping production if diseased or feces-covered birds make it as far as the production line.
The bottom line in all of this, according to The Guardian and other advocacy groups against the new rule places the blame on the USDA and the Obama administration for allowing the rule to get this far. Passage of the rule will make the USDA less powerful and effectively tie their hands. The poultry industry, and processing companies are very powerful entities, contracting out to farms, reaping all the profits, leaving the farmer little more than a sharecropper. Estimated savings to the processing companies under the new rule could be as much as $256 million a year.
If the rule goes through, the White House will be allowing the poultry industry to dictate which rules they want to follow, and the consumer will end up being the losers with a rule that is hazardous to our health.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about Poultry industry, USDA inspectors, modernization, Feces, foodborn illnesses
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