Last week, the USDA did the beef processing industry a huge favor. By proposing that chicken slaughterhouses be allowed to inspect themselves, the department managed to change the story from pink slime to the specter of salmonella-spreading chickens contaminated with fecal matter.
Submitted in January, the USDA proposal calls for expanding the HAACP-Based Inspection Models Project (HIMP) to allow private companies to take over poultry inspections. The government says this will save taxpayer dollars and free up inspectors currently stationed on the assembly line to spend their time working on other plant safety programs.
But many of those inspectors have a somewhat different view of the matter. Last Monday, about 100 of them (some dressed as chickens) staged a protest beneath Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack's window at the USDA. Chief among their concerns is that the proposal increases how many chickens are inspected per minute, from 140 to 200. The jacked-up speed and lack of an inspector on the line promises to make it harder to spot blemishes or fecal matter on the carcasses, and increases the risk of salmonella outbreaks.
This isn't the first time federal inspectors have sounded the alarm about poultry processing. Several told the nonprofit Governmental Accountability Project that they have seen plenty of contaminated birds allowed to pass inspection, and that employees who tried to remove them feared being reprimanded.
Chicken shit isn't the only risk of self-regulation. In a recent study, researchers from Johns Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future and Arizona State University looked in feather meal (a common additive in chicken feed) and found evidence of banned antibiotics, and also, bizarrely, caffeine and the active ingredient in Benadryl (diphenhydramine). In another study, scientists found arsenic in feather meal samples.
Though poultry plants and the USDA may try to wave off concerns about drugged-up, crap-encrusted chickens, the issue shows the problems associated with pumping out cheap factory meat. But as pink slime has shown, it is infinitely easier to sell the public on rock-bottom prices than it is to spend enough money to overhaul the inspection system and earn—much less deserve—the public's trust.