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What About Chicken?

Think the subject of contaminated chicken had been done to death? Think again. Find out just how foul eating fowl can be.

These days, read any description of how chickens go from downy hatchlings to lunch salads and roasted dinner entrees and you'd swear that someone had slipped you the script for an episode of the X Files or the latest Stephen King thriller, "Poultrygeist." All the ingredients for a devilish tale are there: epidemics of Salmonella stalking unsuspecting consumers; slaughterhouse workers toiling in ghoulish conditions; stomach-wrenching mountains of manure and chicken carcasses; and brutally overcrowded factory farms. Trouble is, none of this is fictional.

Waiter, there's Salmonella in my soup

The average North American eats more than 50 pounds of chicken per year, roughly double the amount consumed just 20 years ago. In that time the portrayal of chicken as low-fat and wholesome lured consumers away from a steady diet of beef, as did retail prices trimmed by a revolution in slaughterhouse technology. Though it now costs only about a third of what it did two decades ago[1], any way you slice it, chicken is no bargain.

Each year in the US alone, contaminated chicken kills at least 1,000 people and sickens between 6.5 and 80 million others.[2] These astronomical figures could actually underrepresent the extent of the problem, given that food-related illness is difficult to identify and often goes unreported.

Handling chicken has gotten so precarious (Time magazine calls raw chicken "one of the most dangerous items in the American home") even government officials recommend treating poultry as if it were laden with lethal microbes.[3] A recent report summarizing 55 different studies found that approximately 30 percent of chicken is contaminated with Salmonella and 62 percent with its cousin, Campylobacter.[4] These two pathogens are responsible for 80 percent of the illnesses and 75 percent of the deaths associated with meat consumption, says the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the government agency responsible for ensuring meat safety.[5]

It's no surprise really that chicken is decidedly foul. Factory farms--where more than 90 percent of US chickens and eggs are raised[6]--are fertile breeding grounds for disease, and many commercial livestock feeds are tainted with Salmonella.[7] Additionally, today's slaughterhouses do an excellent job of dispersing pathogens from bird to bird. This is especially true in the chilling tanks, communal rinses for chicken carcasses that are filled with water that routinely becomes a septic brew known in the industry as "fecal soup." According to former USDA microbiologist Gerald Kuester, the product that emerges from these tanks and ends up on supermarket shelves, "is no different than if you stick it in the toilet and ate it."[8]

Strange Featherbedfellows

Despite millions of people falling ill each year, USDA continues to stamp every thigh, breast and wing with its seal of approval [9], prompting many to ask, "Who's minding the henhouse?" Sadly, USDA has historically placed the interests of the influential poultry industry ahead of those of the poultry-consuming public. In 1993, for example, then-USDA chief Mike Espy was asked about using warning labels to alert consumers that poultry products might contain pathogens. Espy answered: "We wouldn't do anything like that. We don't want to have a chilling effect on sales."[10] A year later Espy resigned after being caught accepting illicit favors from the same poultry industry that he had promised to clean up. Time magazine labeled the affair, "symptomatic of the cozy bond that has long existed between USDA and those it is charged with overseeing."[11]

Evidence of this cozy bond can be seen in the slaughterhouse as well as the halls of power. Over the years, USDA has permitted the poultry industry to steadily increase the speeds at which birds are slaughtered, all while lowering health standards and doing little to modernize the government's meat inspection system.[12] The General Accounting Office, the investigative wing of Congress, calls USDA's inspection system, "only marginally better than it was 87 years ago when it was first put in place." Meat inspectors are still limited to using "sniff and poke" methods to identify suspect chickens. But it is physically impossible for inspectors to see, smell or feel microbial pathogens. A new, more scientific inspection system (known by the acronym "HACCP"), calls for microbial testing and increased industry responsibility. HACCP has been agreed upon in principle, but tangible improvements remain years away. Meanwhile, the poultry industry is doing its best to dilute the proposed changes.[13]

There's more. During the anti-regulatory heydey of the 1980s, USDA actually cut its meat inspection staff, and today some 1,370 inspector positions remain vacant. As a result, meat and poultry are, "more contaminated than ever before," says the independent Government Accountability Project (GAP) which represents government whistleblowers, including many federal meat inspectors.

Meat inspectors are among the most outspoken critics of the status quo. In two recent reports by GAP, inspector depositions make clear that unsanitary conditions are rampant in the industry. With the chicken itself, inspectors report that:

**Up to 25 percent of slaughtered chickens on the inspection line are covered with feces, bile and feed.

**Shipments of meat as large as 25,000 pounds are contaminated with everything from black grease and metal shards to digestive contents and dead insects.[14] In one case, inspectors retained 14,000 pounds of chicken speckled with metal flakes, 5,000 pounds of rancid chicken necks and 721 pounds of green chicken that made employees gag from the smell.

**Animals that are dead or diseased are slaughtered anyway and end up in the supermarket.

**Chickens are soaked in chlorine baths to remove slime and odor.[15]

The GAP reports are also replete with inspector testimony of tremendous filth in chicken slaughterhouses. For instance:

**Mixtures accumulate in coolers, on walls, floors and equipment including human and animal excrement, chicken parts, blood, oil, grease, glass, plastic, wood chips, rust, paint, cement, dust, insecticides and rodent droppings.

**Maggots and other larvae breed in storage and transport tubs and boxes, on the floor, in processing equipment and packaging, and drop onto the conveyer belt from meat splattered on the ceiling above.

**Some slaughterhouses that by law must be inspected at least once per shift, sometimes go up to two weeks without inspection.[16]

While acknowledging that, "It would be irresponsible to generalize based on these examples," GAP warns that, "it also would be irresponsible to conclude that these findings are aberrations."

Nine to Nowhere

In 1994, an undercover investigation by Wall Street Journal writer Tony Horwitz added treacherous working conditions and dismally low wages to the horrors inside chicken slaughterhouses. Horwitz, who was employed in several poultry slaughterhouses, described the work as, "faster than ever before, subject to Orwellian control and electronic surveillance, and reduced to limited tasks that are numbingly repetitive, potentially crippling and stripped of any meaningful skills or chance to develop them. The work often was so fast-paced that it took on a zany chaos," Horwitz recalled, "with arms and boxes and poultry flying in every direction. At break times I would find fat globules and blood speckling my glasses, bits of chicken caught in my collar, water and slime soaking my feet and ankles, and nicks covering my wrists."[17]

Steadily increasing poultry sales in supermarkets and restaurants are translating into growing numbers of such slaughterhouse jobs and increased abuse of more and more workers, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.[18] Currently more than 80 percent of slaughterhouse jobs are held mostly by minorities and women between 18 and 25 years of age making five or six dollars an hour.[19] Tragically, for many of them, work on the poultry line represents the best--or only--employment available.[20] "While American industry reaps the benefits of a new, high-technology era," Horwitz mused, "it has consigned a large class of workers to a Dickensian time warp, laboring not just for meager wages but also under dehumanized and often dangerous conditions."[21]

Manure Happens (and happens and happens...)

While no one will ever accuse chickens of overrunning the American West and trampling precious wildlife habitat the way cattle do, the production of seven billion chickens each year does carry a steep environmental pricetag. Consider the following:

**WATER: It takes about 660 gallons of water to produce a pound of chicken, including the skin and bones. With the same water, farmers could produce 16 pounds of broccoli, enough soybeans for three pounds of tofu or enough wheat for nearly five pounds of whole wheat bread.[22] Overall, US poultry operations use 96.5 billion gallons of water annually [23], enough water to meet all the yearly domestic needs of nearly 4.5 million North Americans.[24]

**GRAIN: It takes roughly six pounds of feed to produce one pound of chicken.[25]

**ENERGY: It takes the equivalent of about one-fifth a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of chicken.[26] That's eight times as much fossil fuel as is needed to produce the same amount of protein from tofu.[27]

**TOPSOIL: For every pound of meat produced, we lose about five pounds of topsoil in growing the soybeans, corn and other grains used as feed.[28]

The chicken industry is not only a sinkhole for tremendous natural resources, it is also directly responsible for widespread pollution of North American waterways and groundwater. Although modest amounts of chicken manure can be a valuable soil amendment when properly utilized, the chicken industry is producing vastly more manure than croplands can handle. (For this and other strictly economic reasons, chicken manure is sometimes "recycled" and fed back to other livestock.) Consider that one large chicken complex produces roughly 125 tons of manure each day.[29]

It's not only manure that threatens our water. According to a 1994 report by the University of California, environmental contaminants from factory farms can include excrement, production water, storm water runoff, dead animals, dust, silage, bedding, contaminated products, medicines and chemicals.[30]

The state of Arkansas provides a good illustration of the environmental woes associated with factory farming of chickens. In this state, chickens generate as much waste as eight million people, more than triple Arkansas's human population.[31] In 1992, the Washington Post discovered that in the state's five northwestern counties, where the chicken industry is centered, nearly half of the region's 600 miles of streams are so polluted with chicken and livestock waste that they are off-limits to swimming. Fecal coliform bacteria and nitrates from the manure have contaminated virtually every tributary of the once-pristine, trout-filled White River, threatening the drinking water for 300,000 people.

A country away in British Columbia things look equally grim. There a recent government study identified the poultry industry as the source of heavy groundwater contamination. "If we're having trouble now with excess manure," asks Environment Canada economist Roger McNeil, "what's it going to be like in 20 years?"[32]


We needn't wait that long for a glimpse of the future. Today's tragic realities provide a looking glass into what lies ahead unless we dramatically curb our appetite for chicken. We can expect more children hospitalized and killed by contaminated chicken; more adult's lives cut short by heart disease; and more grief-stricken families mourning the loss of loved ones. We can look forward to more rivers and streams choked with manure and more drinking water tainted with nitrates and herbicides; more slaughterhouse workers facing perilous tasks, on-the-job indignities and lousy pay; and much more animal suffering.

Yet, despite the horrors and bleak forecast, consumers continue to sleepwalk through the checkout line with shopping carts full of fowl. One can only wonder, when will North Americans awaken from this nightmare?

- Steve Lustgarden with Debra Holton



[1] Richard Behar and Michael Kramer, "Something Smells Fowl," Time, Oct 17, 1994, p42.

[2] Richard Behar and Michael Kramer, "Something Smells Fowl," Time, Oct 17, 1994, p42. Jane Brody, "Personal Health", New York Times, Oct 5, 1994, .

[3] Caroline Smith DeWaal, JD, "Playing Chicken: The Human Cost of Inadequate Regulation of the Poultry Industry," Center for Science in the Public Interest, March 1996, p2.

[4] Ibid, p4.

[5] Ibid, p5.

[6] Jim Mason, "Fowling the Waters," E Magazine, Sep/Oct 1995, p33.

[7] Sarah Muirhead, "FDA survey shows low salmonella level in feed," Feedstuffs, Nov 27, 1995.

[8] Richard Behar and Michael Kramer, as per note 1, p43.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] "Something Foul in the Chicken Industry and USDA," Utne Reader, Sep/Oct 1990.

[13] Caroline Smith DeWaal, JD, as per note 3, and Louise Light, "Meat, Greed and Deadly Microbes," Vegetarian Times, Nov 1996, p89.

[14] Government Accountability Project, "Off the Job: Camouflaging Deregulation of Federally-approved Food Processing," May 23, 1996, p5-6.

[15] Government Accountability Project, "Fighting Filth on the Kill Floor: A Matter Of Life and Death for America's Families," Nov 9, 1995, p4.

[16] Government Accountability Project, as per note 14, p3.

[17] Tony Horwitz, "Nine to Nowhere," Wall Street Journal, Dec 1, 1994.

[18] "Organizing the Poultry Industry," UFCW Action, Nov/Dec 1995.

[19] Merritt Clifton, "Life on the Farm Isn't Very Laid Back," Animal People, Oct 1995, p10. "Organizing the Poultry Industry," UFCW Action, Nov/Dec 1995.

[20] Tony Horwitz, as per note 17.

[21] Tony Horwitz, as per note 17.

[22] Water Education Foundation, Sacramento, CA, "Water Input in California Food Production," 1991.

[23] Robert Brown, "Poultry operations must develop wastewater plans," Feedstuffs, Jan 31, 1994 (referencing Ed Schwille of the Poultry Water Consortium of Chattanooga, TN).

[24] World Resources Institute, Environmental Almanac 1992 (Houghton Mifflin, Boston), 1992. , p. 102 (60 gallons per person x 365 = 21,900 gallons per person per year. Divide 96.5 billion by 21,900 and you get 4.4 million people)

[25] USDA, Agricultural Statistics 1994, and Durning and Brough, Taking Stock: Animal Farming and the Environment (Worldwatch Institute, Worldwatch Paper 103), July, 1991, p17.

[26] Mark Harris, "How Green is Your Plate?", Vegetarian Times, Aug 1996, p58.

[27] David Pimentel, "The Potential for Grass-fed Livestock: Resource Constraints," Science, Feb 22, 1980," cited in Mark Harris, "How Green is Your Plate?", Vegetarian Times, Aug 1996, p58.

[28] Mark Harris, as per note 26.

[29] Bell, "An egg industry perspective: Ready for the 21st century?" Poultry Digest Jan. 1990, confirmed by phone, 4/16/96 by Karen Davis, Prisoned Chickens Poisoned Eggs (Book Publishing Company, Summertown, TN: 1996),.p63.

[30] James W. Oltjen, "Potential Sources of Water Contamination from Confined and Grazing Animal Operations," Animal Agriculture: Impacts on Water Quality in California, University of California, Davis, October 1994, p10.

[31] Holleman, JT "In Arkansas Which Comes First, the Chicken or the Environment?" Tulane University Law Journal, 6.1.1992.

[32] Glenn Bohn, "Manure Study aims to turn liability into asset," The Vancouver Sun, July 22, 1996.