Thousands of pounds of chicken with tumors, pus, sores and scabs have been passed onto unsuspecting consumers by the Gold Kist plant in Guntersville, Alabama in a failed US Department of Agriculture 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 recently 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.
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 recently 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 US 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."
In another proposed ruling that calls into question whether the US 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.
Federal meat inspectors and consumer groups have been 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 product.
"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.
Scripps Howard 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.
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."
For more information regarding Docket No. 97-036A contact:
Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environmental Program, 215 Pennsylvania Avenue, S.E., Washington, DC 20003; phone (202) 546-4996; www.citizen.org/cmep
Last month on a voice vote the Senate Agriculture Committee, after no hearing and little advance notice, approved a bill 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 state agencies 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.
A. V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201 email email@example.com; web: www.ea1.com/CARP/