(CNN) — This product “may contain feces.”
That’s the label that one consumer rights advocacy group wants for the government to require meat distributors put on the food they send out to grocery stores.
The recommendation is tongue-in-cheek, Deborah Press, an attorney for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, tells CNN. The group represents 12,000 physicians whose mission includes promoting plant-based diets and ethical scientific research.
But it gets at real concerns the PCRM has about the US Department of Agriculture’s food safety inspection system.
The US Department of Agriculture has a “zero tolerance policy for fecal material on meat and poultry,” a spokeswoman told CNN.
USDA said it sends inspectors out to facilities who look at a “statistically valid sample of carcasses randomly selected throughout the production shift.”
If inspectors find fecal material on an animal carcass, they ensure that contaminated meat can’t enter the food supply, USDA said. And if inspectors observe repeat infractions, the FSIS uses “progressive enforcement actions” against the meat company.
But Press says USDA’s current inspection policy isn’t good enough because it only applies to fecal matter that’s “visible” on the production line.
And the USDA has relaxed its rules on the speed at which poultry companies can process birds. The requirement used to be 140 birds per minute, but has since been raised to 175 birds per minute.
That would mean those working on the line are scanning about three birds per second. They’re whizzing by at a rate that’s hard for the naked eye to comprehend.
Doctors are looking for answers
For at least six years, the PCRM has been asking questions about fecal matter contained in the birds we eat on a daily basis.
Yesterday, the group filed a lawsuit in a federal district court based in Washington, DC.
The question matters, first of all, for the obvious gross factor. “Nobody wants to eat feces,” Press says. But it gets more dire quickly: harmful microbes like E. coli are found in fecal matter.
Despite their questions and follow-ups, they say they’re not getting straight answers from the government about its food inspection procedures.
In 2013, PCRM sent a petition to USDA asking for it to change its rules regarding fecal contamination, and to remove the word “wholesome” from the way it labels and categorizes food that’s past inspection.
Press said the term misleads the public.
The PCRM tested chicken products and found 48% tested positive fecal contamination. And the petition cited a Consumer Reports study that corroborated their evidence, finding “more than half of the packages of raw ground meat and patties tested positive for fecal bacteria.”
The USDA didn’t respond to the petition.
In 2017, the PCRM filed 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.”
Their lawsuit this week says the USDA violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to that FOIA request about fecal contamination rates. Federal law requires that agencies respond to FOIA requests within 20 days of the agency receiving them, according to the Digital Media Law Project.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture told CNN that USDA can’t comment on pending litigation.
The requirement around “visible” fecal contamination belies what’s going on in the bowels of those chickens, the PCRM says.
In its legal complaint, the group cites an unnamed federal inspector who spoke to them:
“We often see birds going down the line with intestines still attached, which are full of fecal contamination,” that inspector told them. “If there is no fecal contamination on the bird’s skin, however, we can do nothing to stop that bird from going down that line.”
From there, the bird would get into a large vat of water called the chill tank, where fecal matter in the bowels can easily wash out and settle on other bird carcasses in the tank. The inspector cited in PCRM’s legal complaint said this is sometimes called “fecal soup.”
Hope for reform
Press said the complaint faces an uphill battle in court. But she was optimistic that reform is possible.
“‘The Jungle’ came out in 1904,” she said. “At that time, there was no federal oversight” of food manufacturing. But Theodore Roosevelt, the President at the time, read the muckracking novel that detailed the horrors of the meatpacking industry. He demanded action.
In 1906, Congress put the Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act on Roosevelt’s desk for his signature.
Press is hoping that, by detailing the industry’s flaws today, PCRM can push for improvements in food safety.