Editorial: USDA must tighten up its oversight at chicken processing plants

According to this editorial, if you ever doubted the capacity of the federal government to function in a timely manner in protecting those to whom it is sworn to protect, consider that hundreds oFunkyChickenHif people in Oregon and Washington got sick from eating chicken over the last decade despite detailed reports by state health officials to federal officials that they could.

Consider, too, that product recalls of the sort that could prevent salmonella-exposure illnesses are few and far between, in part owing to the inability of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to order them.

An exhaustive report by Lynne Terry of The Oregonian/OregonLive shows state health officials linked salmonella outbreaks in 2004, 2009 and 2012 to the chicken producer Foster Farms, with a Kelso, Washington, processing plant fed by chicken farmers from across the Pacific Northwest. Among other things, Terry unmasks caution on the part of factory inspectors and outright fear among agency brass. She attributes to union officials who represent inspectors nationally the assertion that on-site inspectors at chicken plants are “pressured to go easy on food processors, citing one notable case in which the USDA transferred an inspector after Foster Farms complained he wrote too many citations.” Separately, she writes: “USDA officials are so worried about being sued by companies that they’ve set a high bar for evidence, even rejecting samples of tainted chicken that state health agencies believed would help clinch their case….”

Most galling is USDA’s toothlessness. In a 2012 salmonella outbreak that surged in Oregon and Washington, chicken from Foster Farms’ Kelso plant, as well as another in Fresno, California, was persuasively implicated after sample collection and testing by a Washington inspector. Terry reported: “A supervisor in the USDA’s district office in Denver questioned whether the salmonella test results were ‘necessarily the silver bullet’ in an investigation. In a separate email a few minutes later, the supervisor had a different message: ‘Reason I asked is that apparently Foster Farms brought the heavy hitter law firm in. I don’t know the name but I understand they are not taking this lightly.'”

Nobody’s taking it lightly. Foster Farms insists it leads the industry in cleanliness. But state-level public health officials, quick to respond to calls indicating foodborne illness, report their findings to federal authorities who allow weeks and months to pass and consumers to fall ill.