Consumers regularly and unknowingly purchase and consume contaminated meat, according to a recent lawsuit filed by a doctors’ group against the US Department of Agriculture. The lawsuit calls for new rules that would prohibit the sale of raw poultry, pork, and beef that contain traces of animal waste. Under current law, meat can legally contain traces of feces and other animal waste.
The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which is a group that includes approximately 12,000 doctors, has also requested the word “wholesome” be removed from the inspection label of all poultry products and that it be replaced by a warning label alerting consumers to the potential presence of fecal matter in chicken. They’ve also requested the warning label be added to beef and pork products, as well.
Members of the group encourage plant-based diets and advocate for healthier conditions for both humans and animals. The group filed a petition in 2013 with the USDA requesting that ‘fair notice” be given to American consumers.
USDA Claims Zero Tolerance for Visible Fecal Matter in Food
According to the USDA, there is a “zero tolerance” policy regarding fecal matter in meat and poultry processing plants, but this policy applies only to visible fecal contamination. The agency further stated it “disagrees with the underlying assumption that meat and poultry products bearing the mark of inspection are likely to be contaminated with feces.”
The agency claims that pathogen testing is enough to identify problems with meat that is contaminated by fecal matter that is not visible to the eye and that the testing is in place “at critical points along the slaughter line to monitor (the plant’s) ability to maintain process control sufficient to prevent fecal contamination.”
Consumers are also urged by the agency to follow proper cooking guidelines that ensure pathogens are destroyed.
Since no changes were made to USDA policy after the group issued its petition, nor was a response issued, the group has since filed its lawsuit against the government agency asking that there be a “substantive response” to the petition. Federal law requires a response to petitions within a reasonable amount of time, but does not define what that that timeframe is.
The lawsuit was filed within a few days of an announcement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that ground beef was likely to blame for an outbreak of E. coli that affected more than 100 people in six different states. Seventeen had to be hospitalized.
The CDC estimates that approximately 48 million people fall ill each year and as many as 3000 die from foodborne illness in the country.
Food Safety Advocates Claim Meat and Poultry Undergoes “Rigorous Inspection”
KatieRose McCullough, the North American Meat Institute’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs, called Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine a “pseudo-medical animal rights group” and said they didn’t know the difference between fecal contamination and bacteria. She pointed out that E. coli is naturally present in the environment and shows up on everyday products including phones, toothbrushes, and keyboards.
Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, explained that chicken sold in the United State “… is subject to rigorous inspection by both trained company personnel and federal inspectors.” He explained that chickens are placed in a mix of water and antimicrobial chemicals after slaughter to control the growth of bacteria.
According to tests allegedly conducted by the Physicians Committee, of 120 chicken products sold throughout 15 grocery stores in 2011, nearly half tested positive for fecal bacteria. The following year when the group conducted the test again the number of tainted products remained the same and when it tested a third time later that year, the number of contaminated products rose to 62 percent.
One food safety lawyer stated the group’s request that the USDA require more transparency from meat manufacturers “has merit.” That lawyer had previously called for the USDA to label five strains of E. coli as “adulterants.” His mission eventually proved successful and manufactures are now restricted from placing food products on the market that are contaminated with six forms of E. coli. Products found to be contaminated must be destroyed or used to create processed, cooked meats.
He believes that the demands of the Physicians Committee essentially boil down to one thing: that consumers should not be unknowingly subjected to buying and eating food with feces in it.