Feathers Fly Over Meat Claims

When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906, exposing the meat-packing industry's less-than-sanitary conditions, it sparked a revolution in food-processing regulation. Yet it still might come as a surprise that when the Center for Science in the Public Interest released its report "Risky Meat" the other day, the sausage industry was in the lowest-risk category of foods linked to illness.

What really got feathers ruffled was the linking of chicken and ground beef to the greatest health risks in the meat industry today, but the meat producers might have had good reason to be clucking.

By the CSPI's own admission, the number of food-borne outbreaks and illnesses reported to the Centers for Disease Control has plunged 40% over the past decade. While the policy advocates contend it might have to do with budgetary constraints on the part of health agencies that collect data, in drawing their conclusions the CSPI also admits it's the best data that's available. Even so, they end up making broad assumptions by extrapolating from only a small fraction of likely cases.

In fact, the U.S. meat industry is quite safe. It is subject to multiple layers of regulation and inspection at the federal, state, and local level. It's not just health inspectors, but environmental regulators too, all of whom oversee safety standards and processing, packaging, storage, distribution, advertising, labeling, and export of product.

The four biggest chicken processors in the country are Tyson Foods (NYSE: TSN  ) , JBS, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms  (NASDAQ: SAFM  ) , which slaughter 60% of all the chickens consumed in the country, and according to the National Chicken Council, the industry has invested tens of millions of dollars in technology and scientific processes to minimize any risks to the buying public. Indeed, every factory-scale slaughterhouse has four USDA inspectors overseeing its kill lines. 

Tyson, also one of the largest beef and pork processors in the country, details in its regulatory filings the expansive nature of the regulation, pointing to the USDA, the FDA, and even the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration overseeing its operations.

As the prospects for another round of avian flu sweep the globe, stirring up (likely overblown) consumer fears, the last thing the industry needs is an advocacy group raising yellow flags about the safety of its product. 

Yet the usual proposals to improve safety typically revolve around more paperwork. The USDA is considering regulations that would require stores to keep records of all the places from which they get their meat. Since stores typically receive coarsely ground beef in tubes from which they grind it again, adding in trimmings from steak and other beef cuts, the record-keeping rule would be a nightmare to comply with and would add more than $20 million in costs nationwide.

While some two dozen people have been killed in China in the latest outbreak of avian flu and some deem it the most lethal strain so far, the U.S. industry has a strong record of safety, and consumers should not fly the coop because of an alarmist report.

Of course, as the old saying goes, if you like laws and sausage, don't watch either of them getting made.

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