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Can USDA Bird Bath Clean Up Poultry Problems?

March 17, 1994|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

All visible fecal contamination must be removed from chicken carcasses before the birds can be released from processing plants and sold to consumers, according to a preliminary proposal announced last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Presently, poultry plants are allowed to either cut away any visible fecal matter on birds or send them to a large tank for rinsing in a 5-parts-per-million solution of chlorine in water. In the industry this tank is known as the chiller tank. But critics have dubbed the tank "fecal soup" because contaminated birds are mingled with those without visible contamination, potentially spreading bacteria throughout the whole lot.

Fecal matter on chicken skin or flesh is an indicator of contamination. It can occur after mechanical evisceration, or when the chicken's intestines are removed, a step that may rupture organs or viscera. But it's not the only microbiological threat present in processing plants. Some harmful bacteria known to infect chickens--such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria--are not necessarily transmitted by fecal material and cannot be detected by touch, smell or vision. For this reason, USDA is also requiring that all chicken plants conduct microbiological testing of their products to determine the extent, if any, of bacterial contamination.

The proposed fecal clean-up regulation, known as "zero tolerance," was on the books and enforced until the mid-'70s, when most evisceration was still done by hand. In 1978, processors were given the option of trimming, washing or vacuuming fecal matter from birds as long as the procedure was USDA-approved.

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It wasn't until last year--after the food poisoning outbreak linked to undercooked, contaminated hamburger--that Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy directed federal inspectors in beef processing plants to enforce a previously unenforced "zero tolerance" rule for fecal matter on meat. Chicken processors lived with the more beneficial 1978 regulation until last week's developments.

USDA officials have been quick to point out that meat and poultry are being treated differently only because a "zero tolerance" regulation was already in place for beef but not for chicken. To apply the concept equally, USDA must go through the lengthy process of changing federal regulations that apply to chicken and overturning the more lenient 1978 regulation.

With beef, it was just a matter of sending out a directive to inspectors to tightly enforce the zero-tolerance rule that was already within USDA's authority.

Under the new plan, Secretary Espy said that federal inspectors will have the authority to send birds with visible fecal contamination back for a separate washing, or "reprocessing," prior to the chiller tank. Each carcass that is rewashed will also be reinspected by USDA to determine whether the extra rinse was effective in removing the fecal matter. If not, the bird is condemned and removed from the production line.

Critics claim that rewashing birds that contain visible fecal matter is not "zero tolerance" but a technique that gives chicken processors a second chance.

"Numerous studies conclude that bacteria, once on the surface, are impossible to remove," said Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group. "USDA inspectors will now be checking for how the washing is working rather than inspecting for whether the birds are wholesome. I guess USDA will send all the inspectors to washing school."

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Leonard's group, which is a member of the Safe Food Coalition, is saying that a zero-tolerance standard should be applied to the chicken industry and that any bird with visible fecal contamination should be condemned, not rewashed a second time in the hopes of removing the matter. He estimates that between 4% and 5% of all carcasses coming off high-speed poultry processing lines have visible evidence of feces because of evisceration problems. Losing so many birds to condemnation would obviously be costly for the industry, he said.

"Anyone with a brain knows that consumers don't want food that has been exposed to fecal matter," Leonard said.

Mary Dixon, USDA spokeswoman in Washington, argues that the proposal does not give chicken processors a second chance.

"Only if the USDA inspector feels that washing can be effective in removing fecal matter will he or she then allow the rewashing," she said. "That also means that every bird will be rechecked after the rewashing. . . . We are making the poultry inspection system more stringent and adding a new inspector on the line. We are proposing to reinspect every bird that is spotted with contamination and reprocessed. We are not doing that now and it is clearly an improvement."

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