Thursday, September 12, 2013

Out! Out! Damned Fowl!

USDAgov flickr Upload on April 17, 2012

SumOfUs ( defines itself as a nonprofit movement of consumers, workers, and shareholders speaking with one voice to counterbalance the growing power of large corporations. Currently, the organization has 1,249,265 members worldwide. I’m one of them.

So, when I received their alarm! alarm! email over the current status of plans to revise U.S. poultry plant regulations and privatize plant inspections (against the warnings of the government’s independent oversight office), I sprang into action and called the White House comment line to voice my opposition to this plan and urge the President to reverse any such new regulations. I hung up the phone and was left with this nagging feeling that it was the waste of a dime.

I hold certain assumptions about how public food safety works in this country, but I have to admit that I haven’t the foggiest idea where my assumptions originated. What I do know is that they are far from the reality of industrialized food production and the government’s regulation of same. Perhaps it was the four basic food groups and later that ubiquitous food pyramid, both brought to you by the USDA. They have a strong presence in my memory. Perhaps it is this ethereal presence that made me feel there was a guardian over the safety of the food that I purchase. Perhaps, but at any rate, I set out to learn more about the regulation of food in America. Well, poultry processing anyway.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established in 1862 by President Lincoln. Subsequently, he termed it to be “rapidly commending itself to the great and vital interest it was created to advance. It is precisely the people's Department, in which they feel more directly concerned than in any other. I commend it to the continued attention and fostering care of Congress."

The “people’s Department,” such a safeguard makes sense to me given that food is of fundamental interest. In the ensuing years, the USDA was given cabinet status under President Cleveland and the American farmer was supported in the effort to produce a veritable cornucopia of foodstuff. Just looking at the photographs from the USDA website, even for someone familiar with “super” markets generates a profound appreciation. 

An interesting aside deals with the handling of U.S. patents. The U.S. Patent Act became a part of the Constitution in 1790. It assigned the granting and control of U.S. patents to the Department of State, namely the Secretary of State. (I have to wonder if this act would have been structured in this way if someone other than Thomas Jefferson had been the Secretary. But, he was and it was.)

Subsequently, The Patent Act of 1836 created a Patent Office. Although still a part of the Department of State, patents were placed under the control  and maintenance of a Commissioner, the first being Henry Leavitt Ellsworth. Here’s the interesting part: Ellsworth was a lawyer who apparently had a great deal of interest in agriculture. His position gave him access to members of Congress, and he used this access to collect and distribute new varieties of seeds and plants. These interactions obviously were held as valuable because in 1839, Congress established the Agricultural Division within the Patent Office and allotted a budget for "the collection of agricultural statistics and other agricultural purposes."

Okay, back to the future. Well, after one more aside that I certainly never heard in the media. Hard to believe that I would have ignored it. Did you know that in 1999, the USDA settled a class action lawsuit, the Pigford Case, alleging discrimination against 13,300 African-American farmers? The government's settlement of just over $1 billion was reportedly the largest civil rights claim to date. The 2008 Farm Bill provided for 70,000 additional farmers to submit their claims. In 2010, the federal government made another $1.2 billion settlement for outstanding claims and President Obama signed Public Law 111–291—December 8, 2010, which appropriated funds for the government’s settlement obligations. Farmers in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Georgia were among those affected by the settlement.

As this final appropriation bill was being completed, Republicans attacked Shirley Sherrod, claiming that she was biased in her performance as USDA Georgia State Director of Rural Development. That I read about. The allegations were false and the Administration was prematurely and incorrectly reactive. I now believe that this attack and the immediate firing of Sherrod are tied to the acknowledged discrimination against Black farmers and resentment toward the settlement. Republicans screamed Black racism against Whites in the USDA and embellished with charges of fraud on the part of Black farmers, and the President, possibly focused on getting the settlement funds appropriated, was caught by this subterfuge. The result being that Black farmers did not get the national attention that their ongoing cause deserved.

The report on the initial distribution of claim payments has yet to be completed. I’m very much looking forward to reading it. If you share that interest, reports are posted at the USDA Office of Inspector General website .

Okay. I’m back to the present vision of the future for real this time!
In April of this year, the USDA changed the rules for poultry processing. Perhaps, the changes were in response to sequestration budgetary pressures. Perhaps. USDA Secretary, Tom Vilsack says the regulations change is designed to “keep the poultry industry profitable and save the government money” (firing 75% of USDA poultry inspectors would reportedly save approximately $90 million over three years). Really? So money and money topped the “peoples Department” rationale list - even though what we’re talking about is our food!
What were the changes, you might well ask. Well, one huge concern is an increase in processing speeds at the same time as a decrease in the number of USDA inspectors.  Large poultry slaughterhouses are “factories” that process chickens through “kill lines,” currently at a regulated rate of 140 birds per minute, with each line overseen by four USDA inspectors. In September of 2014 when the new regulations take effect, each line will be allowed 175 chickens per minute and will be overseen by a single USDA inspector.
Additionally, the new regulations change the way that slaughtered chickens are sanitized. Instead of relying mainly on visual evidence of illness and contamination, the USDA will now allow that harmful pathogens be addressed by dipping all slaughtered chickens in water laced with chlorine and other antimicrobial chemicals. In other words, all of these chickens will have absorbed a chemical brine that also provides a little profit bonus by increasing the bird’s meat weight. Turkeys are also effected, but that’s yet another story!

Alternately, there are methods available for sanitizing poultry at this stage of the processing that do not include incorporating chemicals into the meat. Air chilling is one example. (Now I know why Whole Foods has that section labeled “air-chilled chicken!”) But, air chilling takes time and the four companies that account for nearly 60% of the chickens slaughtered in the U.S. (Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Purdue and Sanderson) rely on keeping price points low and inventories high through increases in the speed rate for processing the birds.

I can’t imagine working on a “kill line.” For those who do, having your expected work output increased by 25% per minute, while you are welding extremely sharp utensils sounds like a very dangerous proposition to me. And what about air quality in these slaughterhouses? Just thinking about chlorine makes my allergies act up. But, that is not the concern of the USDA. That worry belongs to another protector of public safety, the Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Haven’t learned what they have to say yet.
Who regulates the regulators? Congressional committees don’t seem up to the task. Maybe that would be a good job for all those fired inspectors?

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Poultry Grader Guillermina Aguilar performs an Acceptable Quality Level (AQL) Check, Package Defect (P/D) Check, net weight of boxes, measures frozen temperatures and counts pieces per box of frozen chicken breasts in a Tyson Foods poultry processing plant in Berryville, Arkansas on March 25, 2010. Chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, guineas, and pigeons are all eligible for grading and certification services provided by the USDA AMS Poultry Programs’ Grading Branch. These services are provided in accordance with Federal poultry grading.

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