FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Wednesday, March 13, 1996

CONTACT: Caroline Smith DeWaal (202) 332-9110 x366

New Report Says Inadequate Poultry Inspection is "Playing Chicken" With Consumers' Lives

Upcoming USDA Rules Being Weakened Under Industry and Congressional Pressure, Consumer Group Charges

Despite all the attention given to E. coli contamination of ground beef, it is poultry contaminated by two potentially deadly bacteria that accounts for 80 percent of all meat-and-poultry-related illnesses and 75 percent of deaths, according to a study released today.

About 25 percent of all chickens sold are contaminated with Salmonella bacteria and up to 90 percent with Campylobacter, according to the new study by the nonprofit consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

Yet despite the "real progress" contained in the Clinton Administration's soon-to-be-announced overhaul of meat and poultry safety rules, those new rules have apparently been weakened under intense industry and Congressional pressure, deleting a key provision that would have mandated daily industry testing of poultry for disease-causing bacteria.

"Congress and the poultry industry are 'playing chicken' with consumers' lives by using their influence to weaken vital safety regulations," charged CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "Whatever money industry saves in testing costs will be repaid many times over by consumers in illness and death."

CSPI's 28-page report, entitled "Playing Chicken: The Human Cost of Inadequate Regulation of the Poultry Industry," was released today at a Washington, D.C. press conference.

At the same press conference, former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carol Tucker Foreman declared that she erred in 1978 by permitting poultry producers to wash, rather than destroy, chickens and turkeys contaminated with feces. Foreman and CSPI today called on the current USDA leadership to tighten those "reprocessing" rules, since fecal contamination is a prime cause of bacterial infestation of poultry.

Bill Adler, a Washington, D.C. businessman who nearly died in 1990 from Salmonella poisoning, also spoke at the release of CSPI's report. "From farm to processing plant to grocery store, the food we eat should be as free of germs as our dazzling technology allows," said Adler, who was hospitalized for 12 days at Georgetown Hospital and underwent an emergency colostomy to save his life. "We all have to eat, and we should be able to enjoy our food, not fear it."

According to CSPI's DeWaal, a primary reason for the high incidence of dangerous bacteria in poultry is cross-contamination caused by immersing the birds immediately after slaughter in a common hot-water tank. The water is warm enough for its intended function of loosening the birds' feathers, but not hot enough to kill harmful bacteria.

"The birds are covered with grime and feces when they are placed in the bath, and dangerous bacteria migrate from dirty birds to clean ones in what amounts to a giant pot of 'fecal soup,'" DeWaal noted. More cross-contamination occurs when machines remove the birds' feathers and yet again in a common "chill" bath.

Because bacteria like Salmonella and Campylobacter continue to reproduce while poultry products are being packaged, stored, shipped and sold -- even under proper handling conditions -- even a few bacteria on a bird at the processing plant can translate into thousands of bacteria by the time a consumer brings the product home.

The bottom line: according to USDA, Salmonella and Campylobacter poisoning result in some 4 million illnesses and up to 3000 deaths per year. To reduce those rates of death and disease, CSPI's report recommends that USDA take a number of steps, including:

Congress has put significant pressure on USDA to weaken its meat and poultry rule. Last summer, industry trade associations almost succeeded in stopping the proposed rule with an amendment to the Agriculture Appropriations Bill. Congress also overturned another USDA rule requiring poultry processors to appropriately label frozen products. And just last week, Congress rejected a request for additional funding for inspectors and training to implement the new meat and poultry rule.

"I urge you to take action to remedy the negative consequences of a decision I made 18 years ago, which I believe has contributed to the increase in foodborne illness in the United States," former Assistant Secretary Foreman noted in a letter to current Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, released at today's press conference. Foreman also endorsed the other recommendations contained in "Playing Chicken."

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