‘Citizen journalists’ are killing journalism

by Tom Super

Cue the scary suspense music every time you read an uninformed blogger’s article on food production, not when you buy chicken at the grocery store.

We all know too well that writing for the Web doesn’t require factual knowledge of a subject, as demonstrated by Ms. Shanker’s numerous sensationalized claims and brazen inaccuracies (Chicken is killing the planet). But I’ll get to those in a second.

It is not surprising that we continue to hear these claims about our process and our products.  Today, fewer than five percent of Americans live on farms and most people are so disconnected from agriculture, especially those that are living in urban areas. The majority are separated from farming by multiple generations.  This means that for many people, the news media, the Internet, books and movies are their sources for information about how America’s food is produced.  A lot of folks that cover our industry or our products have never stepped foot on a farm or inside of a processing plant.

That’s why we decided earlier this year to bring 30 members of the mainstream media to a chicken hatchery, feed mill, farm, chicken processing plant and waste water treatment facility for the first ever Chicken Media Summit.  We decided to embrace transparency and let the media see and smell firsthand the entire process, from egg to fork, about how chickens are hatched, raised and processed for food.  No stone was left unturned and no question went unanswered.

The event was a tremendous success, not only showing these folks with their own eyes what it is we do and why we do it, but continuing the conversations and dialogues long after the event.

Obviously, articles such as this one in Salon only prove that we have more challenges ahead, more work to do and more dialogues to begin.  Ms. Shanker did not afford me the opportunity to respond to a number of claims in her article, so to set the record straight, I’d like to address some of them in this post:

  • Broilers (chickens raised for meat) are raised in cages or in cramped, unsanitary conditions. 

Broilers are not raised in cages; they are raised in large barns. But these are far from the wooden barns of old that you might imagine. They are sophisticated, secure grow-out facilities with strictly controlled temperature, humidity and ventilation systems inside – which provide vital protection from the outdoor elements, disease and predators. Some farmers even have apps on their iPhones or iPads that send them alerts if the chickens are too hot or cold or need more food or water.

Today’s chicken farmers and processors produce birds that benefit from modern technology, advances in nutrition, protection from predators and disease, 24-hour access to clean water and feed, adequate room to grow cage-free and professional veterinary attention.

  • The broilers are fed a diet laden with arsenic and antibiotics.

Chickens in the United States produced for meat, known as broilers, are not given arsenic as an additive in chicken feed.  Some broiler flocks used to be given feed that contained a product called Roxarsone, which included safe levels of organic arsenic.  Even though the science shows that such low levels of arsenic do not harm chickens or the people eating them, this product was removed from the market last year and it is no longer used in raising broilers in the United States.  No other products containing arsenic are currently used in broiler meat production in the U.S.

Chickens are fed an all-natural diet consisting of wholesome grains like corn and soybeans – along with nutritional supplements such as vitamins and minerals. Contrary to some myths, growth-enhancing additives such as hormones or steroids are never used.

One of the tools in the toolbox to ensure animal health and produce wholesome chicken is the limited use of FDA-approved antibiotics, under the oversight of a veterinarian, to treat sick birds and prevent disease.   If antibiotics are used, they represent a small fraction of the feed ration and they must be withdrawn long before the bird is slaughtered in order to ensure no residues are on the meat, which is regularly tested for such things.

The chicken industry believes in choice in the marketplace. If someone wants to buy chicken that came from a bird not given any antibiotics, those products are readily available.

  • Their bodies are mechanically separated through a processed called “Advanced Meat Recovery,” stripping the meat off leftover bones and turning it into the poultry version of pink slime.  The resulting goop will be washed in ammonia to kill its bacteria population.

First, Ms. Shanker is confusing Advanced Meat Recovery (AMR) with “Mechanically Separated Poultry.”  AMR is a process used in beef and pork, not chicken.

And there are several reasons why Mechanically Separated Chicken/Poultry differs from Lean Finely Textured Beef (LFTB), or the scarier moniker, “pink slime.”

LFTB is derived using a process that involves separating beef from fat.  MSC, on the other hand, is product that is derived from separating chicken meat, which is naturally low in fat, from the bone, using a high pressure device. This method helps chicken processors prevent the waste of nutritious protein that remains on the bone after other cuts of meat have been removed.

MSC is always fully cooked before it is sold to American consumers most typically in the form of hot dogs and lunchmeat.  If MSC is used in the product, it must state so on the ingredient label.  It is not treated with ammonium hydroxide.  Any bacteria that may be present is killed by the cooking process.

Food safety experts have affirmed the product’s safety and wholesomeness.

  • 87 percent of chicken cadavers test positive for E. coli.

It not surprising that 87 percent tested positive.  Generic E. coli is everywhere in our environments and most strains are harmless.  If you tested the tongues of 100 people, I’d bet 87 percent tested positive for E. coli.  Most importantly, the E. coli identified in the study cited is not a type that would make anyone sick, such as E. coli O157:H7.

  • According to the SPLC, “the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported an injury rate of 5.9 percent for poultry processing workers in 2010, a rate that is more than 50 percent higher than the 3.8 percent injury rate for all U.S. Workers.

It is also noteworthy to compare poultry processing’s 5.8% rate to other industries and professions, to put this number into perspective instead of comparing it to the rate for all U.S. workers.

For 2011, the BLS reported injury / illness rate for automobile manufacturing workers (NAICS code 3361) was 7.5%; for office furniture manufacturing (NAICS code 3372), 5.2%; for passenger airline workers (NAICS code 481112), 7.9%; and for state and local government workers, 5.7%.  The poultry industry’s injury and illness rates are in line with many other manufacturing industries.

  • It’s worth remembering that these jobs still leave a lot to be desired. 

Are some of the jobs in a processing plant labor intensive?  Yes.  But let’s take Alabama for example, home of the SPLC and the third largest chicken producing state.  According to the most recent Bureau of Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, Alabamans employed as meat and poultry cutters or trimmers earn on average $23,000 per year, along with benefits, and are offered year-round employment, not seasonal work.  Consider the following comparisons to other jobs in Alabama:

BLS Alabama Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates

Dishwashers/Fast Food Cooks: $17,500

Teachers Assistants: $19,830

Dry Cleaning Workers: $19,900

Legislators: $20,340

Nurses Aids: $21,500

Teachers: $22,740

Landscapers: $22,890

Meat, Poultry & Fish Cutters/Trimmers: $23,000

  • A recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center concluded that the industry regularly sacrifices its workers’ health and safety in the name of increased factory floor “efficiency.”

Perhaps more than any other industry, the poultry industry over the last several decades has focused its energies on the prevention of workplace injuries and illnesses, especially musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, by recognizing the value of implementing ergonomics principles.  Companies also adhere to OSHA’s recommended guidelines that further help protect poultry workers.

Poultry processing’s 2011 rate of 5.8 represents a 74 percent decrease from 1994 (the oldest data available on the BLS website), when the recorded rate was 22.7, demonstrating the enormous progress the industry has made in improving safety for its workforce.

It is not in a poultry company’s best interests to operate at line speeds that would harm its workers, and common sense tells you it is not in a company’s best interest to operate at speeds that cannot produce safe and high quality poultry products.

  • But despite all of the problems with our chicken system, the momentum is moving against regulation instead of toward more of it. 

Nothing could be further from the truth.  The chicken industry remains one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States. USDA has proposed a change (based off of a pilot project for 14 years) to the way they go about inspecting chicken carcasses.  Under the proposal and in the pilot program, USDA remains in its oversight role and USDA inspectors will still be in every plant, looking at each carcass to ensure the safety of chicken products and providing them with the USDA seal of approval for wholesomeness.  The inspectors are not going to disappear and the proportion of them doing critical food safety-related tasks, like testing for Salmonella, will actually increase.


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Address media inquiries to: Tom Super

Senior Vice President of Communications

[email protected] 202-443-4130