When 33 people died and hundreds were sickened from eating cantaloupe contaminated with listeria, the owners of the farm involved were hauled into court in handcuffs and charged with six criminal offenses. When hundreds of people were sickened by salmonella in chicken — seven different strains of salmonella, all resistant to antibiotic treatment — from a chicken plant that did the same thing last year, nothing happened. No prosecutions, not even a recall of the contaminated chicken. It’s being suggested that the latter outbreak is not being dealt with because of the government shutdown, but the real reason is far worse than that.
Chickens have better lobbyists than cantaloupes. The chicken lobbyists have succeeded for years in preventing the US Department of Agriculture from classifying drug-resistant salmonella as an adulterant in chicken so that recalls could be required. (The worst the USDA can do is to request a voluntary recall.) They have also advanced a plan, that is on the verge of final approval, that would turn over the inspection of chicken slaughter lines to employees of the processor who will have one-third of a second to “inspect” each carcass. In tests, they have frequently missed diseased and/or feces-covered chickens flying past them on the line.
But the chicken lobbyists’ real triumph came back in 2001 when they took a case before the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. A company called Supreme Beef had been caught repeatedly with product contaminated by salmonella, and the USDA wanted to shut them down. The court said no — on the grounds that normal cooking practices made the meat safe. Apparently, “medium rare” is not legally normal, and the counter-tops, cutting boards, utensils, dishes, cloth and hands the meat touches before normal cooking methods are applied, do not count.
This codified in law the remarkable, unprecedented caveat emptor deal the meat industry has imposed on largely unsuspecting customers: we producers will sell you consumers product that will poison you if you eat it, will contaminate anything you let it touch in your home. It is your responsibility to heat it to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit. We have no responsibility.
Thank heavens we have government oversight. That would be the USDA, whose assistant administrator said this when asked why, since they know 300 people have been poisoned by chicken from Foster Farms (and nearly half of them required hospitalization), the USDA has done nothing:
“We had data suggesting Foster Farms was producing product associated with the illnesses but we were not able to associate that with any particular time in which the product was produced or day of production. From the perspective of what was happening in the facility, we did not feel that we had the type of support we needed to make that determination.”
That’s a quote. Honest to God.
So Foster Farms — the chicken producer who advertises that its chickens are grown “naturally,” are “fresh,” and “family owned,” continues to ship product riddled with a bacteria that can give you food poisoning that doctors may not be able to treat. Meanwhile in Denver, John Walsh, the federal prosecutor handling the cantaloupe caper enunciated this principle: food processors “bear a special responsibility to ensure that the food they produce and sell is not dangerous to the public.”