The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine – a group of 12,000 doctors – filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in April 2019 alleging that the federal agency ignored evidence of contaminated chicken and other meat products. The physicians’ group is specifically concerned with the presence of fecal matter on poultry products, which they say is widespread.
At Bad Food Recall, we want consumers to be aware of potential risks in the products they purchase. This contaminated chicken lawsuit has the potential to affect many people. It is already causing many consumers to think twice before buying poultry products.
USDA Lawsuit and Contaminated Chicken Claims
The lawsuit filed by the Physicians Committee seeks to compel the USDA to regulate fecal matter as it would any adulterant in accordance with the Poultry Products Inspection Act. The USDA seemingly ignored a petition from the Physicians Committee, and so the doctors have progressed to legal action.
As it stands, the USDA does regulate all food products for the presence of feces. A spokeswoman stated that there is a “zero tolerance policy for fecal material on meat and poultry.” However, the Physicians Committee argues that these standards only require that there be no visible feces on the surface of the meat. Obviously, the bacteria that can make consumers sick are invisible to the naked eye. The USDA label that says “wholesome” does not indicate that there are no fecal bacteria on food, but merely that there is no visible feces on the meat product.
Doctors are horrified that this is the standard, and rightly so. After the USDA disregarded their petition, the Physicians Committee took their findings public, and filed the lawsuit. The Physicians Committee believes that consumers have a right to know that their purchase may be labeled as “wholesome”, but that the definition is not all-encompassing.
It is long past time consumers knew that they could be serving contaminated chicken to their families. The Physicians Committee lawsuit is asking for consideration of new labeling, which would identify meat that “may contain feces.” The group also wants the USDA to consider previous petitions for fecal matter to be classified as an adulterant.
Is High-Efficiency Production to Blame?
The USDA’s policy on fecal contamination is called “zero tolerance,” but that only really applies to any visible feces. Contaminated chicken can still pass inspection. In 2014, the USDA approved the New Poultry Inspection System, which allowed poultry processing plants to increase the speed of production to between 140 and 175 birds per minute. The new speed is a significant increase over the prior system, which more strictly limited how quickly plants could process poultry.
The increase in production capabilities seems to have come at a cost to food safety. The plants that operate under this high-speed model are more likely to fail the USDA’s standards for Salmonella contamination than those that still operate in the previous manner.
The physicians’ group’s lawsuit quoted an inspector who explained why the fast-paced system creates more contaminated chicken products. He said, “We often see birds going down the line with intestines still attached, which are full of fecal contamination. If there is no fecal contamination on the bird’s skin, however, we can do nothing to stop that bird from going down that line.” The inspector went on to say,
“It is more than reasonable to assume that once the bird gets into the chill tank, that contamination will enter the water and contaminate all of the other carcasses…That’s why it is sometimes called ‘fecal soup.’”
The chill tank is a large vat of cool water intended to quickly cool the meat. A 2013 USDA training video on these high-velocity processes showed that poultry products can sit in the chill tank marinating in “fecal soup” for up to an hour before the plant workers package them for consumers.
Think about that – chicken moves directly from the tank of feces-contaminated water into trays that consumers will purchase.
Even more disturbing is that the new poultry inspection method allows for plants to use private inspection, not a strictly USDA inspection, which has unsurprisingly led to a variety of food safety issues. Not the least of these is the uptick in Salmonella contamination among mass-produced and privately inspected poultry products. Salmonella is a bacteria found in feces.
What are the Chances of Buying Contaminated Chicken?
The Physicians Committee claims in their lawsuit that the USDA failed to respond to a 2017 Freedom of Information Act request for evidence of the rates of fecal contamination in these high-efficiency poultry processing plants. Failing to get the information from the poultry industry, they conducted an independent study. Their findings are horrendous.
Their researchers tested 120 chicken products sold by 15 chains of grocery stores in 10 different cities for the presence of fecal bacteria on the food. What they found:
- 48% of samples tested positive.
- Almost 50% of the chicken products passed USDA standards, yet had fecal bacteria that was not visible to the eye.
The suggestion that the USDA start labeling contaminated chicken products with a sticker that says “may contain feces” is valid, but it is unlikely to happen. Consumers will stop purchasing poultry products, which will hurt the economy for poultry farmers and producers. More likely, the USDA will be forced to address the issue of contaminated chicken products publicly, and it is reasonable to assume that poultry producers will issue statements about their food safety practices to reassure consumers.
Still, consumers can only wonder whether the chicken products they are purchasing and consuming are safe and healthy. Poultry production plants often process meat for distribution to numerous locations. That means that there is no brand, batch, or lot that consumers can watch out for. Instead, this is a potential risk for anyone who purchases chicken.
This lawsuit is a pivotal moment for the USDA. Either they address and correct the conditions leading to so much contaminated chicken, or consumers could stop trusting the food available in grocery stores. It is simply mind-boggling that the USDA would be willing to label a food that sat in “fecal soup” for an hour with a sticker that says “wholesome.”
Meat Recalls Abound
Though the Physicians Committee has been advocating for USDA action about contaminated chicken for years, the current climate of public opinion about food safety is a hostile one. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) just linked an enormous multistate E. coli outbreak to ground beef.
Purdue and Tyson Foods have issued massive recalls for contaminated chicken in recent months as well. According to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), meat producers recalled more than 20 million pounds of meat in 2018. And now, 2019 is ramping up to compete with those numbers.
Dangers of Fecal Bacteria on Meat
Aside from being unimaginably disgusting, fecal matter in food can cause serious illness. The two main concerns about fecal contamination are E. coli and Salmonella illness.
- Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, severe stomach cramps, and vomiting
- Victims experience symptoms within 3-4 days of exposure
- E. coli illness sends many victims to the hospital, and 1 in 10 victims will have a life-threatening complication
- Symptoms include diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting
- Victims experience symptoms within 12-72 hours of exposure
Foodborne illnesses can be dangerous, especially for children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. Consumers should seek medical attention for any symptoms of an illness caused by contaminated chicken.
Foodborne Illness Attorneys
Food producers are responsible for making sure the products they distribute are safe. When consumers are harmed by their products, they must take responsibility.
Sometimes individual products slip through USDA inspections and make it into consumer homes. In this case, however, it is not a matter of products failing inspection, but rather a federal agency’s regulations allow producers to sell meat contaminated with feces. Regardless of the manner in which consumers come into contact with contaminated chicken, those responsible must face up to the harm their products cause.
If you have suffered a foodborne illness, it is possible that it was caused by a food product contaminated with bacteria or fecal matter. Speak to the attorneys at Bad Food Recall to learn more about your rights. Contact us online, or call 1-877-534-5750 to schedule a free consultation.