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Salmonella Outbreak Highlights Need For More Oversight of Slaughterhouses

USDA plans to speed up processing lines, reduce trained inspectors a risk to public health, worker safety

Last week, more than 300 people in 20 US states and Puerto Rico fell sick from a “multi-drug resistant” salmonella outbreak traced to three California poultry plants owned Foster Farms. This is the second time this year that the big poultry company has been linked to a nationwide Salmonella outbreak. Back in July, 134 people in 13 states became sick after eating Foster Farm chicken.

chicken slaughterhouse Photo courtesy USDAUSDA inspectors examine chickens at a poultry slaughterhouse in Texas. The agency's proposed new rules would allow processing time to be increased to up to 175 chickens per minute, which means employees will have only one-third of a second to examine each carcass.

The outbreaks — that most likely occurred despite government poultry inspectors being stationed along processing lines to identify tainted or diseased carcasses —serve to highlight the flaws in US Department of Agriculture’s plans to speed up processing lines at poultry farms. The agency’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) proposed new poultry slaughter inspection procedures last year that would transfer the onus of inspections to slaughterhouse employees. The proposal, that would replace many USDA inspectors with untrained poultry company employees, would essentially privatize these inspections. 

Not just that, the new rules would allow processing time to be increased to up to 175 chickens per minute (from the current, already rather fast 140/minute), which means employees will have only one-third of a second to examine each carcass for contamination and diseases.

The new procedures are being tried out in some poultry facilities under a pilot program. The agency says the new rules will improve efficiency at the plants.  It plans to finalize the regulations this year based on the results of the pilot projects.

Poultry trade groups have welcomed these changes that could save the industry an estimated $256 million a year. “The proposed rule is the logical next step in the modernization of poultry inspection,” Tom Super, vice president of communications for the Washington-based National Chicken Council, told The New York Times.

But many food and labor groups are opposing the changes citing public health and worker safety concerns.

An investigation by Food and Water Watch, which obtained more than 5,000 USDA documents under the Freedom of Information Act last year, found that facilities where the pilot programs were being run seemed to show very low rates of defective or tainted poultry. The advocacy group’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter says the USDA “does not have the scientific basis to justify privatizing poultry inspection.”

Meanwhile, the Southern Poverty Law Center and a coalition of civil rights groups have filed a petition asking the USDA to reconsider its proposed rule change on grounds that increased processing speeds will cause more worker injuries. 

 “Current speeds already have created an epidemic of debilitating workplace injuries. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recently found that 42 percent of workers in one poultry plant had symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome and related ailments,” the center’s staff attorney, Tom Fritzsche, post. The focus on speed is so intense that some workers have had to urinate on themselves rather than invite the wrath of a supervisor by leaving the line for a restroom break.”

These concerns were further validated when the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the US Congress, issued a report in August criticizing the proposed change in inspection procedures. GAO auditors found that the USDA had used incomplete and outdated data to validate its new inspection rules. The report pointed out that training for company inspectors is neither standardized nor required, and that increased productions speeds could compromise food security and worker safety. (The auditors also criticized the agency for failing to evaluate turkey plants, and for using insufficient data while reviewing hog plant slaughter systems.)

The GAO conclusions were partly based on affidavits from inspectors in pilot plants. Some inspectors warned that moving personnel from the middle line inspection areas to the end — one of the proposed changes — made spotting diseased birds unfeasible.

Industrial meat production has come along way from nightmarish visions in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. The book describes an unthinkably unsafe meat industry, in which regulation has yet to be born, and serves a reminder that federal scrutiny exists for legitimate reason. Even in the modern era, industrial meat has far from a spotless track record; reasons abound to keep federal regulation in place.

For one, there are real concerns about illness, as last week’s salmonella outbreak shows. According to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimate, "each year roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases." Salmonella outbreaks have created a continual headache for food safety inspectors, with the CDC citing 1.2 million food poisoning cases each year caused by salmonella.

Then there is concern about what goes into livestock during production. Many industrial farms routinely dose animals with high antibiotics loads to promote animal weight gain and deter illness. There’s increasing evidence now that excessive antibiotics use in livestock is giving rise to antibiotic resistant “superbugs.”

Pressure from organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council led the Food and Drug Administration to advocate for “judicious use” of antibiotics, though the guidelines have yet to become mandatory.  According to a recent FDA study, antibiotic resistant bacteria came up in 39 percent chicken, 55percent ground beef, and 69 percent pork chop samples.

Antibiotics are not the only questionable additives along the production line. Since the 1940’s, arsenic containing-compounds or arsenicals have been added to chicken feed, which boosts animal weight and enriches meat color.

There’s more. Earlier this year, a Washington Post report revealed that increasing use of chemicals on poultry-processing lines could be causing unintended, and possibly fatal, side effects. The report noted that some companies had been using chemical sanitizers so strong that they skew pathogen test results. In preparation of USDA inspections, companies may spike the chemical load, thus rendering results cleaner than the actual meat. If such practices can slip through the cracks under federal inspection, without oversight the door lies open for greater corner cutting, errors and threats to public health.

There is a rather grim backdrop to USDA’s plans to replace trained inspectors with company employees. In recent years several states have seen renewed lobbying for “ag-gag” initiatives. These bills, backed by industrial farm interests, seek to reduce transparency about farm conditions. Such laws recently passed in Utah and Iowa, though were defeated in eight other states, thanks to efforts from animal rights and consumer groups.

Just as with ag-gag laws, if inspections of processing facilities are privatized, people can expect quite a bit more vagary about how their food is produced. It is yet another way of mystifying the meat production process.

And that is scary.


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