Here’s the Poop: Warning Labels on Chicken
Chicken products may soon carry fecal contamination warning labels if the U.S. Department of Agriculture complies with a legal petition the Physicians Committee filed March 14. The petition calls on the USDA to declare feces an adulterant in poultry products and label products to warn consumers about likely contamination.
“USDA should make consumers aware that chicken often contains feces,” says Mark Kennedy, director of legal affairs with the Physicians Committee. “Contaminated chicken often passes right through inspection, is marketed as ‘wholesome,’ and lands on unsuspecting consumers’ dinner plates, feces and all.”
Kennedy also wrote to the co-chairs of the newly reorganized Congressional Chicken Caucus, Reps. Rick Crawford and Sanford Bishop, urging an immediate industry-wide shift to the petition’s proposed guidelines and labels.
Although USDA holds a zero-tolerance policy for fecal contamination, it applies to visible feces only. Consumers assume that this policy guarantees that the products they eat are not tainted with fecal matter. In practice, however, enforcement standards are lax, allowing fecal contamination as long as the feces are not touching chicken skin or visible to the naked eye. As a result, contaminated meat and poultry products pass inspection.
A federal inspector 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. 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 in the chiller. That’s why it is sometimes called ‘fecal soup.’”
Nearly half the chicken products sold in supermarkets are contaminated with feces, according to independent laboratory testing commissioned by the Physicians Committee in 2012. The study analyzed chicken samples from 15 grocery store chains in 10 major U.S. cities. The Physicians Committee’s petition explains that even thorough cooking does not remove feces from meat.
“Feces may contain round worms, hair worms, tape worms, and leftover bits of whatever the animal excreting the feces may have eaten, not to mention the usual fecal components of digestive juices and various chemicals that the animal was in the process of excreting,” the petition states.
“The presence of feces can shut down a neighborhood pool for days,” says Joseph Gonzales, R.D., staff dietitian with the Physicians Committee. “No one wants to swim in feces, much less eat it. Consumers deserve to know that the chicken breasts or ground beef they’re purchasing is likely contaminated with feces.”