Opinion

Eating US pork is about to be as risky as eating chicken – and that’s terrifying

Home cooks in Sweden don’t have to treat their kitchens like operating rooms just to cook some chicken. They don’t have to worry about sanitizing every surface that touches raw chicken over and over. That’s because the country has virtually vanquished salmonella.

Here in the United States, 11 percent to 16 percent of our chicken is contaminated with the potentially deadly bacterium. Just cook it thoroughly, the industry tells us.

It’s not working very well.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, salmonella causes 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths in this country every year. A 2013 outbreak of salmonella in Foster Farms chicken sickened 300 people, most of them Californians. Half were hospitalized with antibiotic-resistant strains of salmonella.

And yet the United States introduced weaker chicken inspection practices several years ago. Now the Trump administration wants to extend the same semi-deregulation to pork slaughterhouses.

Opinion

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) wouldn’t take action in the 2013 case because salmonella isn’t considered an “adulterant.” Foster Farms refused to recall chicken from the plants that had been found to have problems, saying – you guessed it – that tainted poultry was safe if people cooked it properly.

As though people don’t already know they’re supposed to do that.

The problem is that cross-contamination in the kitchen is hard to avoid. It comes from handling raw chicken. It spreads via knives, cutting boards, plates and hands that come in contact with it. It contaminates the sponges used to clean everything.

Many home cooks still don’t realize that they’re not supposed to rinse raw chicken. The water picks up salmonella and many other forms of bacteria and splashes them around the sink, the counter and so forth. Yet some recipes still advise people to rinse chicken.

In both Sweden and the United States, poultry is produced industrially on a large scale. The difference is that in Sweden, chicken is tested at various stages of production, down to the egg. Plants are required to destroy any infected poultry and undergo a thorough inspection and cleanup. Production can’t resume until all animals there have been declared salmonella free.

In other words, tight food regulation makes consumers safer and healthier.

Yet our country has been moving in the opposite direction. This isn’t just a Donald Trump thing – the pilot program to try this out at swine slaughterhouses started under the Clinton administration. The similar rules for poultry were adopted under the Obama administration, allowing plants to replace some government food inspectors with their own staff inspectors.

Foxes in the literal henhouse.

So here’s how it works: USDA inspectors have traditionally inspected each hog through the swine-processing system, both the live animal and the carcass, to ensure that it is free from disease or other contamination. The new system reduces the number of government inspectors at large plants by about 40 percent.

Their duties also change. They will do less hog inspection and instead spend more time ensuring humane conditions and overseeing the general sanitation at each plant.

They’re replaced along much of the assembly line by company employees who might well be well-meaning but who aren’t required to have any training and ultimately will feel a certain nervousness about reducing the company’s profits by taking an aggressive approach or slowing the production line.

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

And that’s another concern: There will be no limit to how fast the line can go. The hogs already are sent through at the rate of 18 animals per minute. Animal parts could go whizzing by these company employees, and will they complain to their bosses that things need to be slowed down in order for them to do their jobs properly?

Industry spokespeople say the pork from plants that have been piloting the program has been just as safe as that from traditionally run plants. But a pilot program involving a small number of plants is different from a large-scale adoption of corporate independence for about 90 percent of the pork produced in this country.

And a 2013 report by the USDA Office of Inspector General had sharp words for the then 15-year-old pilot program, saying that there had been no measurable improvement to the inspection process; that contrary to law, no one was inspecting the hogs’ viscera, and that the swine plant with by far the worst non-compliance over a three-year period was one in the pilot program.

Pork producers also say they have a vested interest in keeping our food wholesome. Big safety scandals scare customers away. Yes, for a while. But people need to eat, and companies, in general, weigh the losses they incur from recalls and lawsuits against the profit they make through quicker and cheaper production.

The history of food production in our country includes feeding animals unnecessary antibiotics, drenching crops in pesticides and processing our food with added temptations of sugar, salt and hydrogenated fat. Reforms have come only after government intervention or widespread public outcry.

Trusting our food producers to do the right thing without being pushed, prodded and downright forced is a tricky thing. We do much better than China, that’s for sure, but talk about a low bar. You’d think we could manage to be as safe eating our food as the Swedes are.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.
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