Obama Swings Through the Jungle: USDA and the Self-Regulation of the Meat Industry

As the Shining City on the Hill continues to flicker faintly on back-up power, battered by political storms of a venal absurdity unanticipated by its framers, and leaving the world’s inferior countries without the example of constitutional perfection to which they all aspire, it is a fitting moment to ask what God’s gift to political science does when all the lights are actually on. In certain vital areas of public policy, it turns out that it doesn’t make much difference whether the United States government is shut down or gliding smoothly down its trillion-dollar tracks. Though this reality may be lost on the hostage-takers seeking further regulatory concessions from the president, and on the propagandists, like Star Parker, who confuse their treacherous tantrums with patriotism, the federal government they claim to hate has already bent over backwards to please the corporate “persons” to whom they really refer when invoking the wishes of “the American people.”

Over-Regulation of Business: A Bipartisan Myth

As we discussed last year, the argument that excessive regulation is hurting American businesses runs into a rather large problem: corporate profits are at record highs. Since then, corporate profits have continued to soar, and have grown more under Barack Obama than under any other post-war president. In fact, corporate profits are more than twice as high as their peak in the reign of Saint Ron, and are at their highest level as a percentage of GDP since the government started keeping records in 1947. That said, there is another problem for the excessive-regulation argument; namely, the conspicuous absence of regulations in areas that are crying out for public oversight of capitalism’s worst tendencies. To set the stage for the discussion to come, let us look at just two examples.

The special American persons who engage in fracking for oil and gas enjoy exemptions, created just for them by a dear friend, from the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. It makes no difference to them whether the agencies charged with enforcing these putative protections of the public are buzzing with the machinations of malicious bureaucrats or idling away the days as mere boxes on an organizational flowchart. Curiously, the alleged socialist/Muslim/Kenyan tyrant has done nothing to reverse that arrangement; on the contrary, he followed it with an abomination of his own, hiding the EPA’s own findings on the dangers of fracking at several sites across the country and even doing pro bono PR work for them from his bully pulpit. Similarly, the special persons who seek to control the world’s food supply through a combination of poisons and patents enjoy protection from an FDA that denies consumers the right to know what they are eating and conspires to suppress potentially inconvenient facts. And, once again, the alleged socialist in the White House has not just looked the other way; rather, he has engaged in highly secretive international negotiations that will facilitate the global spread of proprietary genetically modified organisms in the name of free trade.

It’s such a shame that Barack Obama can’t receive any public credit for all this hard work. It must be agonizing for the poor man, constrained by the American imperative to maintain the illusion of electoral choice, to be unable to point to his manifold accomplishments and thereby silence his unprecedentedly vociferous critics. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and Obama’s predicament is a beautiful thing for America’s special, corporate persons.

Trust, but Don’t Verify

Against this backdrop, we should not be terribly surprised to find the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) poised to add another chapter to the abysmal tale of governmental withdrawal from the duty to safeguard the interests of real, as opposed to fictitious, people. The inspection of slaughtered animals in meat and poultry processing plants – the “showers” in mankind’s continuing Poultry Processing LineHolocaust against God’s other creatures – is about to be turned over to the industry itself. Self-regulation, notwithstanding the utter calamity it wrought on Wall Street, is being touted by the government as the modern way to protect the public. Since we cannot see bacteria, the story goes, there is no need for old-fashioned visual inspections. Peeking inside gutted cavities in search of feces, vomit, pus, or tumors is so 19th Century. We can save money by streamlining our regulations, and public health will be protected by more advanced techniques, such as spraying carcasses with chlorine bleach. And we’re so confident that everything will work out that we see no need to ask Congress to give us the statutory authority to prevent poultry plants from shipping out meat contaminated with salmonella. After all, since we can trust the oil and gas industry not to pollute our air and water, why shouldn’t we trust those nice folks in the food industry?

Even the government itself, then, seems happy to concede the point that it doesn’t much matter whether it is there or not. And in a sense they are quite correct, for either way, consumers are going to get sick, workers are going to get hurt, and animals – always the last victims to be considered, if they are even mentioned at all – are going to suffer even more.

Some of the best reporting on this issue is being done by Tony Corbo of Food & Water Watch. In the following interview with TheRealNews.com, he provides an overview of what the USDA plans to do, and why their plan is so flawed:

Corbo’s concerns about salmonella have been amplified by recent experiences, on which he reported yesterday. On October 7th, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that 278 people have been sickened by chicken from three plants in California run by Foster Foods. 42% of these people have been hospitalized, and doctors have been finding this particular strain of salmonella to be resistant to antibiotics. (This is one of the predictable results of treating confined animals with antibiotics.) An investigation by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was interrupted by the shutdown on October 1, but many staffers are now back on the case after the FSIS announcement. Since salmonella is not considered an “adulterant” in food, the FSIS cannot shut down a plant until it has shown that people have been made ill by its products. At the time of writing this article, NPR had just reported that the USDA was on the verge of closing the plants if Foster Foods failed to come up with a satisfactory remediation plan. There appears to be no talk of a food recall. Corbo notes that a similar incident involving Foster Foods occurred last year, but the FSIS did nothing, claiming there was no specific link to these plants. Now we find more consumers being hospitalized, and still the government presses on with its plans to make regulation even more lax.

Chicken FarmWe cannot emphasize enough that this move towards self-regulation of the meat industry is a bipartisan effort. While the driving force in the House is Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga), chairman of the Appropriations Committee and recipient of significant contributions1 from the industry, his amendment to the Agricultural Appropriations bill (pushing self-regulation) passed on a voice vote with a bipartisan majority. More importantly, however, the Obama Administration – consistent with the other examples noted above of baton-like stealth deregulation passed seamlessly between executive branches of supposedly different philosophies – endorses the same policy of its own volition. The initial trial of self-regulation, known formally as the HACCP – [Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points] based Inspection Models Project (HIMP), and informally as “Have a Cup of Coffee and Pray,” commenced in the mid-1990s. Obama’s USDA, under Secretary Tom Vilsack, announced in 2011 that it sought to expand HIMP across the entire industry. The suspicion that the Administration was prioritizing industry interests was compounded for Food & Water Watch by a troubling  lack of transparency and democracy:

The USDA thwarted attempts to have any public meetings on their proposal and prevented its own National Advisory Committee on Meat and Poultry Inspection from conducting an evaluation of HIMP or making any recommendations on the proposed rule.

Back to the Jungle

Last year, close to a hundred USDA poultry inspectors staged a protest under Tom Vilsack’s window. The main area of concern was the speed of the processing line. As Tony Corbo explained in the video, the current practice is Protest by Poultry Inspectorsto have three inspectors working a line that moves at 140 dead birds per minute. The new system will increase line speeds to about 175 birds per minute, and place only one USDA inspector at the end of the line. That gives the inspector one-third of a second to inspect the food destined for your dinner table. A retired inspector, no longer fearful of the consequences of speaking out, gave the Food Integrity Campaign of the Government Accountability Project her account of how things work in practice:

“We’re moving back in time 100 years.” Citing journalist Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, an exposé of the dangerous standards of early meatpacking plants, Phyllis contends that the poultry industry is reverting to ancient, inadequate monitoring methods by implementing this new program. Phyllis remembers the line as a dizzying blur of carcasses. Speeds were so fast, that inspectors could do little more than sit there, incapable of anything remotely resembling oversight duties. If workers tried to keep up, they would risk injury. Case in point: Phyllis recalls one event where a worker was feverishly working to keep pace with the line despite an injury. The worker’s wrist had doubled in size from a knot caused by repetitive movement on the line, but continued to work despite the pain.

Phyllis explains how this could happen, as the food industry exploits immigrant workers: “Most can’t speak English, and just smile and accept the task without knowing they are about to be put in harm’s way. They are such hard workers … and they are doing the best they can for their family.”

Not only does a language barrier prevent non-English speaking workers from being aware of their rights, but it also contributes to unreported injuries in the workplace. Oftentimes, workers have difficulty communicating with nurses or supervisors about health and safety concerns. Additional underreporting can be a result of the precarious employment status of many workers who are afraid to report injuries due to fears over job loss. Despite the disproportionate number of non-English speaking employees in the poultry processing industry, Phyllis notes that plants typically have only one interpreter available on each shift.

Under the new inspection model, the jobs once done by inspectors will be taken over by plant workers themselves – the quintessential fox guarding the hen house model. These plant workers are often not trained, Phyllis says, and are tasked without adequate instruction for jobs essential to food safety. As a consequence, not only do they miss problems with the birds, they also expose themselves to injury.

Other industry whistleblowers have noted that company workers are rebuked by supervisors if they stop the line for safety reasons and inspectors are frequently unable to complete their tasks. Workers are constantly exposed to hazardous chemicals and appalling threats to their well-being. One of the most gruesome examples of the dangers of working on these lines emerged in 2008, when one of the pig processors participating in HIMP exposed its workers to aerosolized pig brains, causing a nerve-destroying condition called progressive inflammatory neuroptahy (PIN), which doctors find very difficult to treat. We are sure that the readers of the Leesburg Daily Commercial who recently wrote in to express the opinion – both implicitly and explicitly – that America belongs only to “real Americans” will take these conditions into consideration at their next Sunday dinner.

When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, a graphic depiction of life for immigrant workers in Chicago’s turn-of-the-century meat district, he said that he had aimed at Americans’ hearts but accidentally hit their stomachs. This was a reference to the country’s response to his most successful book, which saw outrage over food-safety conditions lead to such landmark federal legislation as the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which eventually spawned the FDA. Sinclair might have added that his readers didn’t just miss his points about the deplorable exploitation of workers; they also missed the inescapable depravity at the heart of the industry – the mass murder of sentient beings. Unfortunately, today’s response to the USDA’s plans is generally no better in this respect.

Murder Most Fowl: The Unspoken Cost of Cheap Chicken

Chickens are almost certainly the most abused animals on the planet, a terrible testament to mankind’s capacity for gratitude to the creatures that provide us with one of nature’s miracle foods, the egg. Even back in 2007, the American food industry slaughtered 30 million cattle, 100 million hogs, and 9 billion chickens. As Gourmet Magazine reported, while some small steps have been taken toward more humane treatment of the larger animals2, the industry that produces and consumes chickens is firmly wedded to the commoditization of living things. The industry itself admits that as many as 54 million birds die on the journey to the slaughterhouse, crammed into Conveyorized-Poultry-Dressing-or-Slaughter-Planttrucks with no protection from extremes of heat or cold. In the process of hanging the lucky survivors upside down in shackles, 900 million will suffer broken or fractured bones from the rough handling. (This is exacerbated by the immaturity of their bones, since young birds have been made to reach the desired weight in an unnaturally short time, one of the many forms of animal abuse shared with the turkey industry.)

The automated line takes its victims to an electrified bath which is supposed to render them unconscious before they meet up with the whirling blade that is supposed to slit their necks. Some birds are not sufficiently stunned and remain conscious when slashed; others writhe away from the blade and arrive at the next step – the tank of scalding water that removes their feathers – still aware of the experience. Since the National Chicken Council allows a rate of 2% for such botched executions, that means 180 million birds each year have their lives ended in a manner that we might wish upon our worst enemies but should not accept for innocent creatures exploited for our benefit.

If we must kill chickens, there is a more humane way to do it, and it wouldn’t cost much for industry to adopt the technique. Researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. found that when the oxygen in air is sucked out and replaced with argon or nitrogen, chickens are rendered unconscious and suffer no pain. The largest chicken processor in Scandinavia, providing the United States with yet another riposte to its incessant and unjustified claims of exceptionalism, implemented this system and recouped its cost in only three years. The “controlled atmosphere” method actually improved yield and meat quality, reduced labor costs and, most importantly, ended an immoral practice that the plant’s staff had been ashamed to have outsiders witness. In Norway, people can see how their food is produced, and know that a good-faith effort has been made to apply the Golden Rule to a fellow creature. But in the United States, the food industry goes to great lengths – including state legislative efforts to treat undercover animal-rights advocates and even journalists as terrorists3 – to hide its shame.

A Shining City indeed.

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  1. Link removed 10/11/15 due to 404 error on FoodandWaterWatch.org.
  2. These steps have been extremely tentative, as shown in our discussion of cruelty in the pork industry.
  3. We discussed these so-called ag-gag bills here.

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