Friday, September 6, 2013

Are you going to eat that chicken ... er, never mind ...

National Public Radio is reporting that the fast-food industry may soon be feeding us (or those of us who eat such things, anyway) chicken “nuggets” made in China, sold in the U.S. without country-of-origin labeling or on-site inspection by U.S. regulators.

“Consumers eating chicken noodle soup from a can or chicken nuggets in a fast-food restaurant (won’t) know if the chicken came from Chinese processing plants," according to NPR writer Maria Godoy. “That's a pretty disturbing thought for anyone who's followed the slew of stories regarding food safety failures in China in recent years.”

As far as I’m concerned, it was already “disturbing.”

As I wrote in 2006, before I had fully forsworn the hormone-laden joys of industrial animal flesh, “nuggets” and the similar White Castle chicken “rings” probably qualify as “Fast Foods Never Found In Nature.” 

“The meat within does indeed taste like chicken,” I wrote. “but then, so does rattlesnake. Chicken Rings appear to be pressed out of an industrial substance (no, not Soylent Green) that, in the era of deregulation, is actually permitted for human consumption. Allow me to quote from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service:”
Mechanically Separated Poultry (MSP) is a paste-like and batter-like poultry product produced by forcing bones, with attached edible tissue, through a sieve or similar device under high pressure to separate bone from the edible tissue. Mechanically separated poultry has been used in poultry products since the late 1960s. In 1995, a final rule on mechanically separated poultry said it was safe and could be used without restrictions. However, it must be labeled as “mechanically separated chicken or turkey” in the product’s ingredients statement.
Aren’t you glad you know this?

But wait! It gets worse!  NPR may have buried the real news way down in the story, beneath the scared-of-China syndrome.  As rational as it may seem to fret about Chinese caution in an age of corporate greed and lax supervision, are we any more secure under the gentle protection of the US industrial chicken industry? Get ready for it ...
And, chicken lovers, brace yourselves: There's more. A report suggests chicken inspections here in the U.S. might be poised to take a turn for the worse. The Government Accountability Office said this week it has serious "questions about the validity" of the new procedures for inspecting poultry across the country. 
Basically, these changes would replace many USDA inspectors on chicken processing lines with employees from the poultry companies themselves. The USDA has been piloting the new procedures, which will save money and significantly speed up processing lines, in 29 chicken plants. As The Washington Post reports, the plan is to roll out the new procedures eventually to "most of the country's 239 chicken and 96 turkey plants." 
The problem? According to the GAO, the USDA did a poor job of evaluating the effectiveness of the pilot programs it has in place. 
As a result, the report concludes, it's hard to justify the USDA's conclusions that the new procedures will do a better job than current approaches at cutting down on the number of dangerous bacteria like salmonella that pop up on the birds that will later end up on our dinner tables.