Cook That Chicken Because You’re on Your Own

by Rena Steinzor

October 17, 2013

Salmonella outbreak reveals we need more, not fewer, cops on the food safety beat. 

Some 317 victims of salmonella poisoning from Foster Farms chicken sold in 20 states have learned firsthand why we need government.   Who knows how much faster the threat would have been contained if Centers for Disease Control (CDC) experts had been walking their usual beat, coordinating state investigators and working frantically to discover the origins of the virulent strain of salmonella that has already hospitalized 42 percent of the 317 victims?  

Instead, the investigators were sent home on furlough, and only recalled to work after the scandal hit the media.  

CDC investigators are a vital link in the chain of public protection because they are the people who “trace back” illness to its source. Obviously, knowing someone has salmonella poisoning is not enough: we also need to know which food, from what company, gave them the disease.

When so many people got sick, investigators were called back, but they had to do their work tracking the outbreak without the benefit of the agency's rapid response online-tracking system, Pulse Net, which was shut down as a result of the furloughs. Eventually, the culprit was isolated: a poultry processor called Foster Farms, based in California that had already amassed a pitiful track record of dirty practices, including “poor sanitary dressing practices. Insanitary food contact surfaces and direct product contamination,” as documented by USDA.  Eventually, USDA discovered that one-quarter of Foster Farm chicken was contaminated by salmonella, more than three times the acceptable standard set by USDA for this bacteria, which causes diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection.

The USDA sent nasty letters to Foster Farms as far back as July, but did not move on the company in any serious way until October when CDC and other government officials figured out the source of the bad chicken. Even then, no recall was required. Why? According to Food Safety Inspection Service chief Daniel Englejohn, the ability of the USDA to recall meat is hampered by a court decision from 2001, which concluded that as long as a contaminant, like salmonella, can be dealt with through the cooking process, it is considered “safe” to eat.   Or, in other words, companies are protected even when people, doing their best to get dinner on the table, get sick. Even proper cooking is no panacea, given the high likelihood of cross-contamination in a kitchen: Costco ordered its recall after someone was sickened with salmonella from eating the store’s rotisserie chicken, which is cooked to at least 180 degrees—15 degrees above the USDA’s recommendation. This odd catch-22 and USDA’s lackadaisical enforcement has resulted in eight outbreaks in 2012 alone. 

Adding insult to injury, matters are about to get much worse if USDA persists with a crazy plan to delegate inspection work to plant operators, effectively turning the regulated into the regulator. The system USDA's backing would speed up the slaughtering/evisceration lines but would still expect harried workers to spot cases where chicken was smeared with feces, blood and feathers.  The Government Accountability Office has written two scathing reports on the scant data used in promulgating the rule.

This isn't the first time the USDA has moved to take a back seat on inspections. In the late 1990s, there was a push to shift the majority of USDA poultry inspection duties over to plant workers, and the American Federation of Government Employees sued USDA. Ruling for AFGE, the judge for the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, wrote:

[T]he government believes that federal employees fulfill their statutory duty to inspect by watching others perform the task.  One might as well say that umpires are pitchers because they carefully watch others throw baseballs.  

USDA inspectors are out on the front lines of our food safety system, documenting violations like those at Foster Farms.  Now they need back up. Step one is for Congress and the right-wingers who seem to be in control of the House to recognize the value of government inspectors, as well as all other federal employees.  Step two is for the White House to push USDA to take a more aggressive stand on enforcement. Step three is for the USDA to show a little backbone, support its inspectors' efforts instead of undercutting them. 

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Also from Rena Steinzor

Rena Steinzor is a Professor of Law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, and a past president of the Center for Progressive Reform. She is the author of Why Not Jail? Industrial Catastrophes, Corporate Malfeasance, and Government Inaction.

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