The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety & Inspection Service (FSIS) denied a petition by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) calling for the agency to declare and regulate feces on poultry as an adulterant.
PCRM sued USDA in April for ignoring concerns over fecal contamination of chicken and other meat. USDA announced that it would take no action to address these concerns.
In its petition, PCRM requested that FSIS: declare and regulate feces as an adulterant; amend FSIS regulations that prescribe mandatory safe handling statements and require that all meat and poultry product labels uniformly disclose the presence of feces, and amend FSIS regulations to remove the word “wholesome” from the official inspection legend for poultry and include an explicit warning that the product may contain feces.
“We have decided to deny your petition because we disagree with the petition's underlying assumption that meat and poultry products bearing the mark of inspection are likely to be contaminated with feces,” FSIS said in its final response to the petition.
USDA implements a “zero tolerance” policy for fecal contamination, yet this policy applies only to visible fecal contamination. PCRM argued that chicken products pass inspection as long as feces are not visible to the naked eye. “However, inspection lines move at rates up to 175 birds per minute — about three carcasses per second — making visible detection of feces nearly impossible,” the organization said.
FSIS noted that under both the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act, FSIS inspectors are required to conduct a postmortem inspection of each carcass. In addition, they inspect a statistically valid, random sample of carcasses for visible fecal material. During these inspection activities, FSIS inspectors will take action against any carcass or part found to be contaminated to ensure that contaminated product does not enter the human food chain.
In addition, FSIS hazard analysis and critical control point (HACCP) regulations require meat and poultry establishments to design and adopt effective controls to prevent the occurrence of pathogens that are not visible, FSIS said in its petition denial. “These testing requirements ensure that establishments are monitoring their ability to prevent product contamination by pathogens, which can originate, in part, from fecal material, on an ongoing basis. Thus, FSIS policies and regulatory requirements address fecal contamination risks beyond the 'zero tolerance' visible material standard,” FSIS said.
The PCRM lawsuit argued that the “public deserves fair notice that food products deemed ‘wholesome’ by USDA would be deemed disgusting by the average consumer and adulterated under any reasonable reading of federal law,” PCRM said. The lawsuit also claims that USDA violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to a 2017 request for documentation of fecal contamination rates detected in poultry slaughter plants and other data related to poultry inspection and slaughter line speed.