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Is There Fecal Matter in Your Chicken? One Lawsuit Thinks So.

— April 18, 2019

The USDA recently came under fire in a new lawsuit filed by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine over concerns that meat entering the food supply may be contaminated with fecal bacteria.

Earlier this week, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) over allegations that the “agency has not appropriately responded to their concerns about fecal contamination in the production of chicken and other meats.” The suit itself was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a group made up of nearly 12,000 doctors who advocate for “plant-based diets and ethical and effective scientific research.

This isn’t the first time the nonprofit has voiced complaints about potential fecal contamination. According to the lawsuit, the group “previously petitioned the USDA to change how it regulates fecal contamination in meat and poultry production” following a 2011 study that “allegedly found fecal bacteria in 48% of analyzed poultry products sourced from 10 U.S. Cities.” The study was conducted by the organization. The suit states:

“Although USDA implements a ‘zero tolerance’ policy for fecal contamination, this policy applies to visible fecal contamination only. The result is that fecally contaminated meat and chicken products pass inspection as long as the feces on them are not visible to the naked eye.”

Image of The Jamie L. Whitten Building in Washington D.C., the USDA headquarters
The Jamie L. Whitten Building in Washington D.C., the USDA headquarters; image courtesy of Billy Hathorn via Wikimedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.or

As a result of its findings, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine hopes the lawsuit will bring about a “substantive response” to its original petition.

So how has the USDA responded to the lawsuit? Well, the agency responded to the suit on Tuesday and said it “disagrees with the underlying assumption that meat and poultry products bearing the mark of inspection are likely to be contaminated with feces.” Additionally, the agency argues that “pathogen testing is used to prevent fecal contamination,” and added that as long as the meat is properly cooked, the pathogens are typically destroyed before consumption.

Furthermore, the USDA said it routinely sends “inspectors out to facilities who look at a statistically valid sample of carcasses randomly selected throughout the production shift.” If an inspector ever finds fecal material on an animal carcass, steps are taken to ensure that contaminated meat never enters the food supply. Also, if a facility has repeat infractions, the agency’s FSIS uses “progressive enforcement actions against the meat company.”

However,  Deborah Press, an attorney for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, claims the inspection policy the agency currently has in place isn’t good enough “because it only applies to fecal matter that’s visible on the production line.” Press further notes that the USDA has “relaxed its rules on the speed at which poultry companies can process birds.” For example, the requirement “used to be 140 birds per minute, but has since been raised to 175 birds per minute.” That means line workers are expected to check about three birds per second, so there’s no wonder why some are concerned that contaminated meat might be making its way into grocery stores and markets.


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