An activist group wants to place a label on poultry products warning consumers they may contain feces.

The legal arguments

In April, a group called the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) claiming the agency does an insufficient job of inspecting bird carcasses in poultry slaughter plants. PCRM is a group focused on plant-based nutrition and eliminating the use of animals in scientific research.

A press release from the PCRM said the lawsuit quotes an anonymous federal inspector who said inspectors often see birds headed down the processing line with intestines, potentially full of fecal matter, still attached.

“If there is no fecal contamination on the bird’s skin, however, we can do nothing to stop that bird from going down that line,” the unnamed witness says in the release. “It is more than reasonable to assume that once the bird gets into the chill tank, that contamination will enter the water and contaminate all of the other carcasses in the chiller.”

The release goes on to cite a study conducted by the group in 2011 looking for fecal bacteria on chicken products found the bacteria on 48 percent of the products sampled. It uses this as evidence of what it calls contamination of chicken products.

Reading between the lines

It seems to me the real target of this suit and/or publicity stunt is the New Poultry Inspection System (NPIS). The NPIS allows plant workers to assume some duties formerly assumed by USDA inspectors and, under certain circumstances, permits the speed of the processing line to be increased from 140 birds per minute to 175.

The PCRM release, without citing any data, says the data show the handful of plants operating under the NPIS are “more likely to fail USDA’s performance standards for Salmonella, a bacteria found in feces, than those operating under the traditional inspection scheme.”

The suit, of course, is dubious. As KatieRose McCullough, the North American Meat Institute’s director of regulatory and scientific affairs, told WATT Global Media, the detection of certain, naturally present bacteria like E. coli does not mean a surface is contaminated with feces. Moreover, the USDA has a zero tolerance policy for fecal matter entering the chiller as well as high standards for the presence of Salmonella and other foodborne pathogens.

This may not matter as the suit is already having its desired effect of getting headlines like this actual headline from CNN, “It's legal for your meat to have trace amounts of fecal matter. A group of doctors want to change that.” In that sense, it may be achieving its goal of disgusting, and misinforming, consumers even if it fails in court.

This lawsuit, as well as the surrounding press it’s generated, should serve as a reminder that the industry is constantly under scrutiny from both motivated activists and passive consumers. The best defense from these attacks is to run a clean operation following best practices.