- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which represents 12,000 doctors, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture claiming they were disregarding concerns about fecal contamination in poultry. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday.
- The group, which previously submitted a petition on the issue, is advocating for new rules to prohibit the sale of raw meat contaminated with feces and to have the term "wholesome" taken off inspection labels. The doctors group proposes a new label on meat products including the phrase "may contain feces."
- "USDA misleads consumers every time inspectors slap a 'wholesome' label on contaminated food," Deborah Dubow Press, an associate general counsel for the Physicians Committee who authored the lawsuit, said in a release. "Consumers should be horrified to know that USDA’s standard for wholesomeness is 'no visible feces.'"
It has been a long and fruitless fight for the doctors group so far, but this legal action could change that. Back in 2013, the Physicians Committee submitted a petition urging USDA to regulate feces as an adulterant under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. The petition claimed that contaminated meat and chicken passes USDA inspection on a regular basis. The group says it has yet to receive a response.
A USDA spokeswoman told Food Dive in an email that the department does not comment on pending litigation, but that USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service has a "zero tolerance policy for fecal material on meat and poultry."
"FSIS on-line inspectors check for fecal contamination on each poultry and livestock carcass at the post-mortem inspection step," she said. "And, FSIS off-line inspectors conduct fecal zero tolerance checks on a statistically valid sample of carcasses randomly selected throughout the production shift."
But the doctors' group argues that this policy only applies to fecal contamination that is visible to inspectors. In 2011, the group tested 120 chicken products in 15 grocery stores spread out across 10 cities for fecal bacteria contamination. Almost half tested positive, sparking the petition.
Those numbers don't look good for the USDA or the poultry industry in the eyes of consumers and retailers.
Since the petition was sent, the group has made several requests for updates, but says it has not received a response. In 2017, the group also submitted a Freedom of Information Act request asking for "records regarding the number of USDA poultry inspectors, detection rates for visible fecal contamination in poultry, average poultry line speed, USDA poultry inspection rates, and inspection training." But it is still waiting to be updated on that as well, according to the lawsuit.
This lawsuit comes amid a string of recalls in the meat industry. The CDC recently announced that E. coli-contaminated ground beef was the reason for an outbreak that sicked at least 109 people. Before that, Perdue Farms, Tyson Foods and Pilgrim's Pride combines recalled more than 100,000 pounds of chicken nuggets. And millions of pounds of meat and poultry were recalled in 2018, according to federal records.
Recalls and lawsuits like this one could be the catalyst for change if they cause consumer backlash. In 2008, USDA declared a huge recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a California processor. Congress then used the 2008 Farm Bill to implement new requirements as a result of that outbreak for companies to quickly alert the USDA about potentially contaminated or mislabeled meats. The USDA has since lightened its policies on the rate that chicken companies can process poultry, going from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.
With more poultry processed at a faster rate, meat recalls in the news and this latest lawsuit saying meat is often contaminated with fecal matter, consumers could stop trusting what they see at the grocery store.
Just last month, the USDA planned to release new guidelines to offer advice on investigating and processing contamination complaints. Although it seems unlikely the agency will ask poultry companies to label products with "may contain feces," this lawsuit could push USDA to issue a response to the physicians, and may also lead meat companies to reassure consumers about the cleanliness of their products.