Poultry and Meat Industry Health Risks Are Sure to Rise with Less Government Oversight

By on February 4, 2013

On January 30, 2013, the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) released its first ever comprehensive report regarding foodborne illness in this country.  The CDC’s findings suggested that while leafy greens amounted for the most illnesses, the most deaths (19%) were from foodborne illnesses linked to poultry, in particular Salmonella and Listeria.  At the same time, the US Department of Agriculture has announced its plan to reduce government oversight of poultry inspection by taking government inspectors off processing lines and hand off their duties to company employees; increasing line speeds so inspectors only have 1/3 of a second to view carcasses; and making it nearly impossible for inspectors to examine all parts of the bird for illness and disease.  After witnesses the proposed plan in action during a pilot program, a retired USDA poultry inspector created a petition to forestall the plan implementation, which has gained nearly 200,000 signatures.

In addition to limitations on government inspections, the meat industry has also pushed back further in attempting to shield itself from liability by pushing laws to prevent the public from seeing what goes on behind its closed barn doors.  The so-called “Ag-Gag” laws make undercover investigations illegal by prohibiting taking photos or videos on farms and slaughterhouses, making false representations when applying to work at an industrial farm or slaughterhouse, and requiring any witnessed illegal activity be reported and all video documentation be turned over immediately.  Forcing a potential whistleblower to prematurely stop its investigation at the first sign of any wrongdoing would result in incomplete evidence and the extent of the activity taking place and would most likely lead to the inability to prosecute those involved and stop the activity from continuing.  Over thirty charities, including many animal protection groups, have lined-up in opposition to the proposed Ag-Gag laws. According to a poll by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, over 2/3 of Americans support undercover investigations by animal welfare organizations, with 54% strongly supporting them.

In November 2012, a whistleblower case on behalf of the federal government against Hallmark/Westland, the second-largest National School Lunch Program beef supplier, settled for $500 million.  The case followed a recall of 143 million pounds of potentially diseased and dangerous meat after an investigator from The Humane Society of the United States revealed systemic violations of the Federal Meat Inspection Act at the plant, including diseased and disabled animals being forced to walk to slaughterhouses by workers ramming cows with forklifts, jabbing their eyes, applying painful electrical shocks to sensitive areas, dragging them with chains pulled by heavy machinery, and torturing them with high-pressure water to simulate drowning.  The whistleblower lawsuit alleged that the plant shipped meat to our nation’s school from animals too sick and diseased to walk which had endangered the health of the nation’s school kids by exposing them to foodborne pathogens and other diseases and illnesses, including Mad Cow Disease. Without the Humane Society’s undercover investigation, public schools would have continued to receive diseased meats for their students to eat and the practices would have continued at Hallmark.  The lack of government oversight and the anti-whistleblower laws leave the safety and treatment of animals as well as the health risks to consumers in question.