Diseased Chicken for Dinner? The USDA Is Considering It

Here's one unexpected consequence of the Defense Production Act: Your food is less safe.

When President Trump invoked the act three months ago, as a means to bolster American food security, it marked the beginning of a campaign to deregulate the meat industry.

Recall that the president first pressured meat-processing plants to remain open after many had become Covid-19 hotbeds. Since then, federal agencies have suspended meatpacking worker protections, lowered plant inspection standards, eased labeling rules for manufacturers and relaxed enforcement of pollution restrictions for chicken and pig farms.

The president has justified the rollbacks by claiming they’ll prevent dangerous meat shortages during the pandemic. But the argument is flawed. Meat exports have been surging in the U.S. over the past few months. Poultry demand has declined slightly in the U.S., yet sales to China have been higher than ever. The most likely outcome of this deregulation is to further imperil, rather than strengthen, the security of our food supply.

Consider the decision last month by the agriculture department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service to allow poultry plants to process diseased chickens for human consumption.

In July the FSIS approved a petition from the National Chicken Council requesting that slaughterhouses be allowed to process broilers infected with Avian Leukosis — a virus that causes chickens to develop cancerous lesions and tumors. Inspectors would no longer be required to examine the first 300 birds of each flock for signs of the disease, and processors would be able to cut off tumors and lesions and then process the rest of the bird. The approval has led to a proposed rule change that is now before the food safety administrator Paul Kiecker.

Here’s what we know about Avian Leukosis: A small percentage of birds (less than 1%) are diagnosed with the virus each year, but it spreads quickly through flocks and tens of thousands of chickens are condemned annually due to exposure. While it’s unlikely that the virus could transfer from chickens to humans, it’s not impossible. There is some evidence that workers exposed to birds infected with the disease in the U.K. have developed antibodies, indicating a transfer of the virus from animal to human.

Parthapratim Basu, who served as the Chief Public Health Veterinarian for the FSIS from 2016 to 2018, explained that Avian Leukosis is caused by a retrovirus and can become a systemic disease that passes through the blood, at which point cutting out tumors would fail to eliminate the virus. “We have always had a motto in food safety: If it’s systemic, condemn it,” said Basu.

While the FSIS did not grant me an interview, Tom Super, the NCC communications director, offered the following statement by email: “As a taxpayer and a consumer of chicken, I would much rather have the government focus their efforts on things that might actually make someone sick and have a real impact on public health, rather than looking for lesions, bumps and bruises that are easily trimmable.” 

But the timing of a rule change seems absurd. “We are dealing right now with a pandemic that transferred into humans from an animal source,” Basu added. “Sooner or later it will mutate,” he said of Avian Leukosis. “A poorly regulated meat industry could very well become the source of a new epidemic.” 

The CDC reports that “more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.”

Other efforts to deregulate the chicken industry are similarly worrisome. The USDA is considering another proposed rule change requested by the NCC, which would allow all U.S. poultry factories to increase line speed rates from processing 140 to 175 birds per minute. (As Basu pointed out, it’s hard enough for line workers to detect symptoms of Avian Leukosis at current line speed rates — nearly three birds per second in many plants.)

The agency has already allowed dozens of poultry processors to increase processing line speeds to this rate, prompting America’s largest meatpacking union to sue over unsafe working conditions and legislators to introduce bills to prevent faster production line speeds.  

“To speed up lines, when during a pandemic they should be slowing them down, is unconscionable,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for the group, Food and Water Watch, who helped write the bills. “In my 20 years working on food safety law I have never seen anything like this.”

The solution to this latest food-safety imbroglio is clear: Kiecker should reject these proposed rule changes. Whatever Big Chicken would gain by being able to process more chickens per minute, as well as diseased chickens, does not outweigh the possible threats to public health.

If the Trump administration was really concerned about food security, they’d recognize that the chicken sandwich has been one of the most popular food items during the pandemic. Messing with the recipe would be the wrong move.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey and has recently introduced a bill tosuspend all rules allowing meat processors to increase production line speeds during the pandemic.Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge has issued companion legislation in the House.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Amanda Little is a professor of journalism and science writing at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of a Bloomberg Opinion series on the fate of food after Covid-19 as well as the book "The Fate of Food: What We'll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World."

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.