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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Is Meat Fit to Eat?

Along with rising meat prices is mounting chaos in the regulation of meat and poultry for wholesomeness, safety and purity. Under the Wholesome Meat and Poultry Acts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to advance these objectives. Instead, proindustry USDA officials, industry lobbyists and state officials struggling to block federal inspection have devastated many applications of these crucial consumer protection laws. Here is a list of abuses which numerous dedicated USDA meat and poultry inspectors are deeply concerned about. They are finding support for these concerns, not from their political bosses, but often from General Accounting Office (a Congressional agency) investigations of USDA.

Filthy or contaminated meat and poultry can be a carrier of at least thirty human diseases including brucellosis, hepatitis, trichinosis, staphylococcus and salmonellosis. Many of the 2 million salmonella food poisoning cases, which cost the nation more than $300,000,000 annually in medical costs and lost labor, are linked to such contamination. Some of these diseases afflict workers at meat packing plants (brucellosis for example) in addition to consumers. Even when U.S. inspection is working without corruption, harassment or apathy, the “U.S. Inspected” stamp does not mean that there has been a bacteriological monitoring of the fresh meat and poultry from slaughter to retail sale. Although the products are scanned for disease, there is no effort to check bacteria levels.

Chemical residues from the use of pesticides, nitrites, hormones, antibiotics and other ingredients of the chemical alphabet soup are continually ignored by producers and processors and a passive government despite increasing health risks such as cancer and birth defects. Other long-term adverse effects on health are uncharted and therefore assumed not to exist. The average consumer ingests about 5 pounds of chemical additives each year. Meat — because it is at the end of the food chain and because drugs, preservatives and coloring agents are now a staple of the feedlot and processing companies — is a major source of chemicals in the human diet.

Consumers ingest more pesticides from the meat they eat than from any other commodity. Two lawsuits by environmental and consumer groups ask the government to ban the cosmetic uses of sodium nitrite in bacon, hotdogs, ham and other processed meat and prohibit all uses of the synthetic hormone and fattener — diethylstilbestrol — in cattle.

The elaborate details of these and other food struggles are described in a new book, Sowing the Wind by my colleague Harrison Wellford. He also documents and evaluates the role of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in setting standards which supposedly determine the amount of water allowed in hams and poultry, the level of fat in hamburger, hotdogs and corned beef, even the number of hairs and insect remains in canned meat. The influence over these standards by industry lobbyists and lawyers is great. The consumer’s interests are little represented.

Who is to watch out for the food industry’s manipulation of standards relating to the fat, water, protein and chemicals added to meat products? Who is to monitor the debasement of the concept of wholesomeness — e.g., whether cattle with cancerous eyes or chicken wings with small tumors are government approved or not?

Michigan tried to answer a few of these questions by passing tougher standards than those put out by USDA for greater nutrition and less adulteration of the hot dog. The big meat companies sued Michigan to block this standard. Hormel, Armour and Wilson and Company won the latest round in the federal appeals court which ruled that the federal standard preempts the Michigan law even though “it has the effect of reducing an ingredient requirement that may result in higher nutritional value for a meat food product.”

Consumers must begin asking more searching questions about the meat and poultry they buy or they will continue to pay more for less roasts and chicken and more water, fat cereal, filler, drugs and chemicals. They can start with their representatives in Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.