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Meat | Food & Water Watch - Part 4
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Blog Posts: Meat

June 28th, 2012

Crashing the USDA’s 150th Birthday Party

By Walker FoleyUSDA Demonstrates Food Safety

“On behalf of the department, we’re delighted to share our 150 years as part of this Folklife Festival. 150 years. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s our birthday.”

That was USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan as she welcomed onlookers to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall yesterday afternoon. I was there alongside other Food & Water Watch staff, coalition partners – the National Consumers League, the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards and the American Federation of Government Employees – and a dozen helpful interns. We had heard the USDA planned to give a food safety demonstration for the average consumer, and couldn’t help but enjoy the irony accompanying their demonstration. 

As the Food & Water Watch savvy already know, the USDA has been pursuing a pilot program for little over a decade that purports to cut meaningful food safety inspection out of the budget, and out of poultry plants all over the United States. We decided it best to inform the crowd by handing out an abridged version of a recent LA Times editorial, aptly retitled by the Arizona Daily Star, “New US approach to poultry safety isn’t safe at all.” USDA organizers did not appreciate our efforts, and didn’t hesitate to tell us – more on that in a moment.

Merrigan’s speech glossed over the USDA’s mission statement, and gave a brief history of the USDA from its inception in 1862 to the present. However, one statement struck a poor chord and, had we not flyered the entire audience, may have gone unnoticed.

“We create jobs and economic opportunity in the nation’s rural communities. We help keep America’s food safe,” she said. But her words fell short of the truth, as the USDA’s new approach to poultry inspection would do just the opposite – eliminate jobs of skilled USDA food safety inspectors (about 800 of them) and increase conveyor line speeds. With fewer inspectors and faster birds, the process begs for higher rates of contamination. 

Shortly after Merrigan’s speech USDA workers gave a food safety demonstration in a specially-zoned area of the Mall. This was a no-free-speech zone, where we were not allowed to give flyers to participants. We quickly found ourselves directed out of the enclosure (a three foot mesh fence) by USDA event organizers. But the damage was done. We had already put a flyer in the hand of every participant.

If you would like to wish the USDA a happy 150th birthday, then call the U.S. Capitol Switchboard – 202-224-3121 – to be connected with your Senators and Representative. Let them know you don’t support this unsafe approach to the nation’s poultry production. 

May 17th, 2012

Why Did O’Malley Cross the Road? Because Big Chicken Told Him To

Scott Edwards, co-director of the Food & Water Justice project

By Scott Edwards

This originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Just last week Food & Water Watch broke a story about extremely close ties between Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley and the poultry company Perdue.  O’Malley’s closeness to Perdue was evidenced in 70 pages of emails acquired under a state freedom of information request; they are largely between O’Malley and Perdue’s general counsel, Herb Frerichs. As revealing as the emails are, subsequent disclosures indicate that the relationship may be even more of a tangled web than was originally thought. 

Maryland is home to the Perdue chicken empire, a multibillion-dollar industry that has managed to game the system to avoid responsibility for its waste in a way that few companies have achieved. Proper disposal of the hundreds of thousands of tons of manure from its very profitable enterprise is critical given that agriculture, including Perdue’s chicken farms, remains the largest source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and many other waterways across the country.   Read the full article…

April 19th, 2012

Media, Consumers Pressure USDA to Rethink Doo Doo Chicken

By Walker Foley

The USDA wants to cut back on federal food inspectors and let company employees take responsibility for monitoring poultry slaughter lines at private plants. FSIS administrator Alfred Almanza talks a lot about how the plants should be modernized to increase safety standards, but when you read the affidavits released by actual plant inspectors  herehere, and here it’s hard to believe that this proposal will do anything to make our food supply safer. The affidavits are a clear warning to consumers of what is to come if the USDA extends the program to all poultry facilities nationwide. Many of the complaints in the affidavits stem from a lack of training, less thorough carcass examinations, and, among numerous other faults, increased line speeds. Imagine trying to carefully inspect 200 birds flying past you in a minute. 

If only Upton Sinclair were still around to weigh in. Fortunately media outlets like ABC, The New York Times and others have stepped up to report on consumer health and worker safety concerns. Here’s Jim Avila’s report.

Yes, you heard him right. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service extended the public comment period due to the public outrage. Tomorrow, Food & Water Watch will join inspectors, other consumer advocates and concerned citizens in delivering more than 150,000 signatures collected opposing the plan, but more are needed. The new comment period will close on May 26, so if you haven’t already, please take a moment and write. Because who wants to eat breast blisters, fecal matter, and cancerous tumors?

April 10th, 2012

Job Request: Chicken Company Sorter

Protect our littlest consumers from multinational marketing efforts.By Tony Corbo

In my job as senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, I’ve analyzed thousands of pages of food safety program reports and talked to hundreds of inspectors on the front lines of our meat and poultry industry but I have not visited a slaughter facility participating in the HACCP-based Inspection Model Project. Sure, there are brief sporadic tours of HIMP plants given to a select few, but you can’t really get a true sense of how they operate on a tour. Which is why I asked the USDA for a job as a company sorter.

Yesterday I wrote a letter to Elisabeth Hagen, Under Secretary for Food Safety at the US Department of Agriculture, and Alfred Almanza, Administrator for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, asking them for the opportunity to work as a company sorter on a slaughter line in one of the chicken plants participating in the HIMP pilot. Since 1998, two-dozen slaughter facilities have been participating in the HIMP pilot. Now the USDA is considering expanding the program to all poultry facilities despite a recent Food & Water Watch analysis found an appalling amount of defective and unsanitary poultry contaminated with feces, bile and feathers got through and inspectors have raised serious concerns about “humanly impossible” line speeds.

Still, the USDA contends that the HIMP inspection model is superior and will save the agency millions. I’m skeptical but if the industry and USDA are so confident about their privatized inspection model, they should have nothing to hide by letting me experience what it takes to inspect poultry at 175-birds-per-minute with little or no training and be subject to employer intimidation to let unsafe and unwholesome food into commerce.

Here is my letter to Dr. Hagen and Mr. Almanza. I’ll let you know if I get the job.

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April 2nd, 2012

Doo Doo Chicken: the New Pink Slime

By Walker Foley

Some consumer advocates are marking a swift victory after Beef Products Inc. announced the shutdown of three of its four factories last week. But pink slime is just the frothy tip of the repulsive, risky, potentially unsafe meat iceberg floating in our food supply.

In case you’ve been out of the country for the past two weeks and missed the pink slime hysteria, here’s the gist. In 2002, USDA microbiologist Gerald Zirnstein dubbed BPI’s lean, finely textured beef trimmings (LFTB) “pink slime.” Zirnstein’s neologism lay dormant for the next 10 years until mainstream media and consumer activists rallied around the term and asked not, “Where’s the beef,” but, “What’s the beef?”

LFTB is made from all the leftover fatty bits too hard to traditionally separate and package. So, BPI’s facilities spin the bits in a high-temperature, high-speed centrifuge to separate the fat from the meat. Then they bathe the meat in an ammonia solution to kill harmful strains of E. coli and other bacteria, grind it up, and mix it into the ground beef we then slap on the grill or roll into meatballs.

Food industry scientists are asserting the slime is safe, as is the USDA and even some consumer advocates.

“Pink slime” is not the only industrialized meat treated with unappetizing chemicals. The USDA sanctions the use of chlorine, tri-sodium phosphate (that is normally used to clean cement) and hypobromous acid (that is used to clean swimming pools) to treat poultry for salmonella and sterilize feces that might still be on carcasses because the production line speeds are too excessive and cannot be visually detected.  Sure, it might be safe to eat, but as with “pink slime,” it speaks to a food safety system that is increasingly reliant on chemical cocktails that don’t have to be labeled on the products that are treated and, thus, keep consumers in the dark about how their food is produced.

While chasing the pink slime story, the media missed a much bigger threat to our food’s safety. Granted, HIMP — the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP)-based Inspection Models Project – isn’t as memorable of a catch phrase as pink slime, but its implications are more sickening.

Since 1998, the USDA has been experimenting with this program that gives the job of monitoring the safety and quality of poultry to the poultry processors and drastically increases the number of birds federal inspectors must examine at a time. Food & Water Watch has found evidence of food contamination in many of the test slaughter facilities, including bits of beak, feathers, lungs, oil glands, bile and even fecal matter still on carcasses after employee inspection. In 2011, some of the chicken facilities’ average error rate was 64 percent, but anywhere between 87 and 100 percent in turkey slaughter facilities.

Why are they moving the responsibility of food regulation from food regulators to food producers? To save money! Of course, proper consumer safety has a price, but so do the lives of the thousands of Americans who get sick and even die from foodborne illnesses lurking in the meat we eat.

Perhaps The Young Turks can put it better:

Activists are protesting disgusting chicken.

Doo Doo Chicken: The Next Pink Slime.

You know things are bad when USDA meat inspectors join consumer advocates and concerned citizens to protest on the steps of the USDA, which happened today. Among the signs calling on USDA not to put chicken company profits ahead of consumer safety, and folks in chicken suits, the union for USDA inspectors and Food & Water Watch spoke to the crowd about how expansion of the HIMP program jeopardizes food safety.

While members of the media did come out to cover the rally, HIMP probably won’t make tomorrow’s front-page news or the lead punch lines of the late-night talk circuit. But if the program is expanded, which could happen as soon as October, we could be seeing a lot more headlines about serious food-related illnesses crop up. Which is downright repulsive. 

December 22nd, 2011

Five Outrageous Food Stories of 2011

By Rich Bindell

Natural flavors in foodThere’s never a shortage of interesting and incendiary stories about food issues to choose from at the end of the year. This year is no exception. As we continue to build our campaign to improve the Farm Bill in 2012, we can see examples of why this work is so important just by taking a look at some of the most outrageous food stories of 2011…

1. Attack on Food Safety Budgets

2011 started out with a bang; our food safety programs got banged up by threatened budget cuts. In addition, we witnessed a number of food recalls due to contamination that threatened public health with serious illness and, in some cases, even death. It’s not a surprise that a large and complex food system such as ours requires an aggressive approach to food safety. Unfortunately, federal and state governments’ ability to use that strategy was weakened when food safety budgets were slashed. While the meat and poultry inspection program at USDA escaped relatively unscathed, the Food and Drug Administration didn’t fare as well. FDA’s budget only allotted about half of what it needed to put the newly passed Food Safety Modernization Act into action. In 2012, Congress needs to get their food safety priorities in order. Read the full article…

November 21st, 2011

House Republicans Drive More Nails into Livestock Rule Coffin

GIPSA Rule

The Obama Administration is caving to meatpacker interests and many Democratic members of Congress aren't standing up for independent livestock producers.

By Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch

[Originally posted at Huffington Post]

While the big news among good food activists has been the unsettling possibility that a secret farm bill could be snuck into the Super Committee’s recommendations and passed with no public input, Republicans have furtively dealt a crippling blow to family farmers and consumers. This week, House Republicans included language in a budget bill that gutted the fair livestock rules that have languished for more than 80 years. Once again BIG MEAT has derailed the commonsense protections that allow small livestock producers to compete and check the abusive practices of the poultry industry.

The 2008 Farm Bill included reforms to protect small and medium-sized farmers who raise cattle, hogs, and chickens from unfair treatment at the hands of meatpackers and poultry companies. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration proposed rules (known as the GIPSA Rule, after the agency) to protect poultry and hog farmers from unfair contract terms – like retaliating against poultry and hog growers who speak out about abuses – and ensured that cattle and hog producers could get a fair price from meatpackers for their livestock.

Nearly three years later, the fair livestock rules have been shredded and there is plenty of blame and shame to go around. The Obama administration failed to show leadership on this issue and reneged on President Obama’s campaign pledge to “fight to ensure family and independent farmers have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices.”

Agriculture Secretary Vilsack caved to meatpacker money and power by issuing significantly watered down rules – after nearly 18 months of foot dragging to issue the final rules at all. USDA’s final proposal indefinitely postponed any efforts to protect independent cattle and hog farmers and issued a much weaker set of protections for contract chicken and hog farmers. Many Democratic Senators on the Agriculture Committee – including Chairman Debbie Stabenow from Michigan – stood on the sidelines and refused to stand up for livestock producers in their states. Read the full article…

November 18th, 2011

You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ‘Til It’s Gone

Food Safety at Risk By Rich Bindell

Right now, some members of Congress are pushing hard for “regulatory reform” that would make it next to impossible for the federal government to create any new regulations. Their anti-regulatory battle plan attacks on two fronts: the REINS Act and the Regulatory Time-Out Act. While their rhetoric conveniently claims these bills would address issues of money, jobs and inefficiency in government, their main goal is to kill all regulations, even those regulations that are tantamount to public safety.

The “reforms” that some members of Congress are trying to pass could strip federal agencies of their ability to update meat and poultry inspection, safe drinking water standards and even fair competition in the marketplace among food producers —basic functions of government that shouldn’t be tied into the political dysfunction of the past several years.

Remember the Food Safety Modernization Act that became law early this year? This recalibration of the FDA’s food safety program should enable federal regulators to catch up to modern challenges in food production, including provisions that protect against pathogens like Listeria and Salmonella in produce and processed food. We’ve had recent outbreaks of both, complete with massive product recalls. The Regulatory Time-Out Act would push these critical regulations off for another year.

Imagine, for a moment, that your drinking water wasn’t monitored or that food processors were no longer properly inspected for safety. Life without these protections in place would be very different, indeed. While the public would go unprotected, the powerful corporations would get to operate as they please, with no one reigning in practices that could damage the environment or public health. No matter what folks think about the budget deficit or job creation, most would agree that there are basic functions best performed by the government – and protecting common resources like food and water are pretty high on that list.

The claims made about creating jobs and saving money by deregulating powerful industries are rhetoric, not reality. We need regulations to safeguard our food, water and natural resources. These are basic protections that ensure public health and safety, not a source for savings.

November 16th, 2011

Who will be the Biggest Loser if we don’t fix the Farm Bill?

The Biggest Loser could be the Farm BillBy Rich Bindell

You know Jillian Michaels as the now-famous inspirational trainer (and former overweight consumer) from The Biggest Loser. Did you know that the main reason she has been able to maintain her healthy body is from eating organic foods and staying FAR AWAY from processed food products? It sounds like Jillian is well aware of the problems that burden our corporate-controlled food system, run by giants like Monsanto, Cargill, Tyson and Nestlé. If only the show could focus on that part of a better health strategy, it could really teach people about the critical importance of the Farm Bill in improving our food and our health as a nation.

Wait a minute… that gives us an idea!

America has already opened its collective consciousness to the lessons of The Biggest Loser. The show’s contestants are close to our hearts for good reason: they’ve allowed us to examine ourselves and how we view our own health. But, now it’s time to welcome a new group into the fold and follow them as they head down a path toward self-improvement and healing. Only this time, the contestants aren’t playing for themselves, but for everyone who depends upon a healthy food system.

Welcome to the Biggest FARM BILL Loser. Read the full article…

November 10th, 2011

USDA Stands Up for Big Ag, Not Fair Food

Fair FoodBy Rich Bindell

The USDA has once again failed to protect independent farmers from the companies that control our broken food system. They have sent part of the much-debated GIPSA rule over to the White House for final approval – without critical parts of the proposed rule that are needed to equalize competition for independent cattle and hog producers in the livestock marketplace. While there may be some positive changes in the rule for the poultry industry (see more detail in the statement from Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter), it is clear that those companies who have solid control over the livestock market also have a lobbying arm that exerts solid control over the current administration.

In 1921, the U.S. government came to the conclusion that something needed to be done about the lack of competition in the meatpacking industry that was allowing a few companies to dominate the market. Congress passed a law called the Packers & Stockyards Act and the USDA created the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA) rule to address the problem. The problem is that they have never enforced the law. What good is a seatbelt if you don’t use it? Read the full article…

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