Playing Chicken with Food Safety

The U.S. Constitution empowers the federal government to “provide for the general Welfare,” but free-market ideologues have distorted the Founding document’s plain language to fit their desires, including their new demands that food-safety rules be gutted, as Michael Winship explains.

By Michael Winship

The other day there was this guy in a chicken suit on Pennsylvania Avenue protesting outside the White House. Silly, but the reason the chicken and other demonstrators had crossed the avenue was to deliver a petition of more than half a million names, speaking out against new rules the U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to put into effect bad rules that would transfer much of the work inspecting pork and chicken and turkey meat from trained government inspectors to the processing companies themselves.

Talk about putting the fox in the henhouse! The revised regulations also call for a substantial speeding up of the disassembly line along which workers use sharp knives and often painful, repetitive hand motions to cut up and clean carcasses of dirt, blood and other contaminants that can cause infection and sickness.

Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, which exposed scandalous disregard of the public health in the food-processing industry.

Not only will this increase in speed by 25 percent or more — raise the chance of injury, it makes it easier to miss anything wrong even deadly — with the meat. To compensate for that, the rules also call for an increase in the use of antimicrobial chemicals sprayed on the meat — but those sprays may actually damage the health of the workers.

Inspectors and meat packing employees report instances of asthma, burns, skin rashes, sinus trouble and other respiratory ailments, some of them severe. What’s more, when complaints were made about health or hygiene, the response from employers often came in the form of threats and reprimands.

According to the Agriculture Department, their plan will increase food safety, but early last month, the Government Accountability Office the GAO — reported on a years-old pilot program for some of these new rules and determined that the data on which they were based was, in the words of The Washington Post, “incomplete and antiquated.” One study used data that was more than 20 years old.

The Agriculture Department says the new rules will save the federal budget $30 million annually, but compared to the more than $256 million it will save the poultry industry every year, that’s chickenfeed.

In reality, as Tom Philpott, the food and agriculture correspondent for Mother Jones magazine, succinctly put it: “The Obama administration has been pushing a deregulatory sop to a powerful industry based on a shoddy analysis.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that “each year roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases.” Every state in the Union has seen an outbreak in food-borne illness over the last decade; men, women and children made sick by E.coli, salmonella and other pathogens in everything from meat to produce, cereal, even peanut butter.

The progressive website Truthout notes that “Americans are 110 times more likely to die from contaminated food than terrorism at an annual cost to the economy of nearly $80 billion.”

And yet, when Congress passed the Food Safety Modernization Act almost three years ago, designed to toughen standards, the representatives of the food industry spending tens of millions in campaign contributions and lobbying money — went after it with a vengeance, delaying and watering the final version down so much that the Food and Drug Administration can barely function, its own inspectors unable to fulfill their duties. (The situation was made even worse by the government shutdown.)

In 2011, the FDA inspected only six percent of domestic food producers and less than half a percent of imported food and this at a time when more and more of our food including two-thirds of our fresh fruits and vegetables is coming from overseas.

Additional pressure on Congress and state legislatures comes from our old friend ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by Koch Industries and other corporations including, recently, Google and Facebook as well as conservative organizations, to draft legislation designed to benefit big business no matter the cost to the rest of us.

In an introduction to its so-called “agriculture principles,” ALEC announced, “The proper role of government involvement in agriculture is to limit and remove barriers for agricultural production, trade and consumption throughout our innovative food system.”

Safety restrictions should “incorporate a least restrictive approach,” it says, while at the same time ALEC encourages high-tech, high-yield farming and calls out against  “unnecessary additional restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture.”

ALEC boasts about the safety and quality of our food system the highest in the world, it says but at the same time designs and pushes legislation designed to prosecute and crush journalists, whistleblowers and animal rights activists who would secretly infiltrate the food industry to expose shoddy practices and unsafe, unsanitary conditions that threaten the nation’s well-being.

These so-called “ag-gag” bills criminalize those who would report abuse. If such laws had existed a century ago, a muckraker like Upton Sinclair would never have been allowed to report the sordid practices of the meat packing industry that led to his book “The Jungle” and saved who knows how many from tainted food, sickness and death?

Add to this the controversy over growth-enhancing drugs and hormones, the danger of genetically modified foods, the cruelty of big business factory farms: how can measures like these sound like good ideas to anyone other than those who would put profits above public health? It’s called “runaway capitalism,” and the time has come to stop this free-market fundamentalism gone amok.

It’s enough to make you sick.

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at the public policy and analysis group Demos, is senior writer of Moyers & Company, the weekly public television series. Karen Kimball contributed research to this piece.

5 comments for “Playing Chicken with Food Safety

  1. elmerfudzie
    October 5, 2013 at 20:19

    he production line, the vegetative organs and meat examined by USDA inspectors, run quickly along a conveyor belt. These slaughtered calves or chickens are so young that the likelihood of finding malignancy or other disease is usually rare. Secondly, if the readers of this article are flirting with a “technological fix” idea such as, meat sterilization methods using intense gamma radiation, let me say that the procedure has demonstrated a biological condition known as polyploidy in the gut line cells of such meat consumers. This condition is certainly a red flag in terms of potential mutagenesis. In the final analysis, the general public doesn’t always properly cook, wash their hands or for that matter, find themselves compelled to buy GMO mega-farm foods. Not to get too far off the point but it’s true that so called package bar codes do not accurately point to actual product origin and no-one wants to swallow Chernobyl laced spices. Nor do people want to put up with GMO modified gut-bacteria that eventually precipitate something akin to gastroenteritis, described as a type of malaise symptomatic of Crohn’s disease. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I have the option, and this is true of the mid-westerner states as well, of buying from local co-ops or open markets. Visiting the actual producers farm and greeting the man or woman who grew the fruit, nuts or sausages we consume! Of course, I buy on the spot. Yes, you’ve got to get into the car, find the unmarked county road, put up with the local security services (dogs) and oh my gosh! meet the farmer! I’m not proposing to stop shopping at Walmart, just give it a balanced approach folks. Who was it that said (Roman or Greek origin?) and I’m paraphrasing here: Provide food that’s convenient and consumers will flock your door? So, the shopping slugs must accept a lot of residual insecticide on unwashed surfaces; occasionally tainted ground beef and potentially mislabeled food BUT if this same consumer develops a shop-smart attitude, at least half the stuff on his table won’t be so bad to eat, provided of course he is familiar with the word, restraint!

    • elmerfudzie
      October 5, 2013 at 20:22

      The Elmerfudzie comment should have begun with, along the production line, cut out somehow, sorry..

  2. Greg Driscoll
    October 5, 2013 at 13:32

    One has to wonder if the new “booboisie” has again become a key element in the irrational melange which our society has turned into over the past 30+ years; the resurrection of Mencken’s ridiculed group can be laid at the door of such “think tanks” (oxymoron alert!) as The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, The Cato Institute and other groups deliberately fostering cherry-picked “data” / studies, and funded by right-wing moguls of the corporate elite. A prime objective of these organizations is to generate confusion in people’s minds about any important issue that impinges on “corporate freedom” to make profits by any means available – even the destruction of the world’s environment and people’s lives.

  3. bobzz
    October 5, 2013 at 12:05

    I don’t watch Jimmy Kimmel, but I saw the clip—asking people if they preferred Obamacare (OC) or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The interviewees rejected Obamacare but favored the ACA (I assume the interviewees, all white, were cherry picked for amusement). But they could have watched the evening news (!) to know OC and ACA referred to the same law. If we can’t understand, or worse, don’t care to understand the simple, how will we ever have a critical mass that understands, or tries to understand, the complex, i.e., what is happening to this country?

  4. F. G. Sanford
    October 5, 2013 at 11:38

    In a way, this represents a kind of poetic justice. Stories like this always come out after the legislative damage has been done. The fact that the people it will harm most are the people who voted for it in the first place never ceases to amaze. Those meat packing plants are often located in “Right to Work” states. Those are the ones where “Folks ’round here too smart to vote for them lib’ral union commies, we gotta right to work”. I recently visited a municipal government office that had a sign posted: “This is a right to work state. Failure to report violations will be prosecuted by law”. Let’s face it. People who are that stupid deserve to eat bad food. They’re the same people who want creation taught in science classes. What this amounts to is codification of the “Darwin Awards” into United States Public Law. Hasn’t anyone watched the succession of Republican Congressmen taking the floor and repeating the same party line? They’re calling this the “liberal shutdown of the government”, and their constituents seem to agree. Autism is way up, and those children are, after all, “special”. Never mind that the epidemiology seems to suggest an environmental factor. It’s OK. Because in that same municipal government office, there was a poster with a Down’s Syndrome child. The caption said, “I know I’m special, ’cause God don’t make no junk.” Gradually, natural selection will remove these people from the gene pool despite their aversion to reproductive rights. They aren’t smart enough to realize that “100% Beef” includes lips, lungs, intestines and assholes. Why should the rest of us be concerned that the occasional human finger might be included in a pound of ground beef? As long as folks continue to patronize the establishments that perpetuate this and vote for the politicians who enable it, is there really any reason for sympathy? I do feel bad about the mistreatment of animals, but Americans are getting EXACTLY what they voted for. I don’t know about you, but…”I’m lovin’ it”

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