First of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is failing so completely that the distinctive USDA seal of approval today no longer guarantees that chicken is safe to eat, according to 78 federal USDA inspectors at the nation's largest poultry plants. Every week throughout the South, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers, instead of being condemned and destroyed, the USDA inspectors said. America's love affair with chicken is creating unprecedented demands on the poultry industry.
Three columns of chickens, dangling by their feet, speed into the ear-splitting din of a cool, dank warehouse - a maze of birds in dizzy, mechanized motion.
The lines of bobbing broilers coil around half a dozen machines that eviscerate the fryers and thread past the rare human worker who, wearing a hairnet, cotton smock and black rubber boots, reaches out to snip with scissors at the occasional bird the machines miss.
It is an automated cascade triggered by consumers seeking low-cost, low-cholesterol fare in record numbers. And it carries a hidden price: contamination.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, responsible for ensuring that poultry products are wholesome, is failing so completely that the distinctive USDA seal of approval today no longer guarantees that chicken is safe to eat, according to 78 federal USDA inspectors at the nation's largest poultry plants.
Every week throughout the South, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers, instead of being condemned and destroyed, the USDA inspectors said. Consumer advocates, federal veterinarians, former USDA scientists and congressional experts also describe a poultry production system swamped by success and out of control.
"You know the USDA seal of approval we put on the chicken? Well, it means nothing now. It's meaningless," said Gail Duncan, an inspector at the Trussville, Ala., plant owned by Atlanta-based Gold Kist Inc., the nation's third-largest poultry company.
Senior USDA officials call Mrs. Duncan, a 42-year-old mother of two who has been a federal poultry inspector for nine years, and hundreds of inspectors like her are the consumer's "first line of defense" on poultry processing lines. She has become so concerned that chicken is no longer wholesome she has not served it to her own family for a year.Sixty other inspectors said they also were so concerned that they no longer eat chicken.
"Chickens we would routinely condemn 10 years ago are now getting right through to the consumer," said Mrs. Duncan. "What's so bad is the people are paying taxes for us to do this job and we can't do it. We are not being allowed to protect the consumer."
84 inspectors interviewed
In all, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed 84 federal poultry inspectors from 37 processing plants in Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, North Carolina and Mississippi. Included were inspectors at plants operated by the eight largest poultry companies in the United States. Among the findings:
Thousands of birds contaminated or stained with feces are shipped every day instead of being condemned, 81 inspectors said.
Thousands of diseased birds pass from processing lines to stores every day, 75 inspectors said.
Thousands of contaminated birds are salvaged by cutting away visibly diseased meat and selling the rest - much of which is also diseased - as chicken parts, 70 inspectors said.
Maggots, especially in summer months, often infest cutting and processing machinery, 47 inspectors said.
"Last summer, they were bringing plastic tubs into the plant and they had maggots crawling all over them," said Susan Ridgway, 42, an inspector at the ConAgra plant in Dalton, Ga. "These tubs would have been loaded up with chicken parts if we hadn't caught it. It happens all the time."
USDA scientists, industry experts and consumer advocates say that millions of birds leave plants every week contaminated by the unseen bacteria that cause serious food poisoning.
To meet spiraling demand, chickens today are slaughtered and processed by high-speed automated machinery. By their design, the automated lines spread bacteria and contamination, industry experts said.
While the demand for chicken has soared in recent years, so has the incidence of food poisoning from salmonella and campylobacter bacteria. Every year, millions of people get sick and several thousand die, scientists at the U.S Centers for Disease Control estimate. The number of individual U.S. food poisoning cases caused by salmonella alone increased 116 percent in the last two decades - up to half due to chicken products, the CDC said.
Must be 'cooked properly'
Poultry processors strongly defend their products.
Industry officials are keenly aware that it would be economic suicide to ignore quality control. Consumer confidence is the keystone of their success.
"We do not put out a product that is unwholesome. We simply would not do that," said Dr. James Whitmore, vice president for research and quality assurance at Tyson Foods Inc., the nation's largest poultry processor.
Paul G. Brower, a spokesman for Gold Kist, agreed. "We spend a great deal of time and money and hire people who are very thoroughly trained in quality control to be sure that we produce, process and market a safe, sanitary, wholesome product." Processed chicken is contaminated with salmonella and other bacteria. But they think the CDC is simply wrong in estimating that millions are getting food poisoning from chicken.
It would cost far too much to produce cleaner chicken, industry officials said, and they believe that consumers would be reluctant to pay the price. Thanks to an intensive investment in high-speed processing machinery, chicken is today the cheapest meat consumers can buy. In fact, a whole chicken actually costs less today per pound than 40 years ago.
Poultry processors could produce chickens completely free of bacteria by irradiating them, but consumers appear to be more frightened of this technique than by the threat of bacteria.
Industry officials say that as long as consumers thoroughly cook poultry, however, there is no danger of food poisoning.
"The chicken is without a doubt wholesome and healthy - as long as it's cooked properly," said Dr. Kenneth N. May, a spokesman for the industry's trade group, the National Broiler Council.
Poultry companies and the USDA, in effect, today increasingly depend on consumers to protect themselves - despite a federal food inspection system that costs taxpayers $417 million a year. What inspectors miss at the processing plant must be caught in the kitchen.
Even trained federal inspectors can often miss the subtle signs that might indicate any of a dozen diseases. And, without a microscope, it is impossible for anyone to tell whether chickens are covered with bacteria.
The most vigilant consumer cannot control the preparation of chicken in restaurant kitchens, which cook about 40 percent of the chicken produced today. Some 25,000 fast-food outlets have added chicken to their menus since 1977.
It is equally difficult for anyone to obtain a firsthand look at how plants process poultry.
Of the nation's 15 leading poultry processors, only Gold Kist and Seaboard Farms allowed a reporter to tour a processing plant. On the day of the tours, workers and inspectors seemed to follow proper procedures to ensure that only wholesome chicken was shipped.
Four USDA-approved commercial testing laboratories in the Southeast refused to conduct poultry salmonella and campylobacter contamination tests for the Journal-Constitution. Brian Shelton, lab manager for Pathogen Control Associates, echoed other lab managers when he explained why: "I would expect an extremely high percentage of the chickens would test positive. Our poultry industry clients wouldn't like that."
Bigger role for industry
Growing health hazards posed by chicken are the byproduct of the industry's dizzying success and widespread government deregulation of poultry processing, critics believe.
Commercial chickens are raised in crowded "grow-out houses" and slaughtered at high speed by automated machinery - both of which can increase contamination, they say. By law, each bird must be inspected -but the lines move so fast that thorough examination is all but impossible, inspectors say.
Now the Agriculture Department has plans to allow production lines, which have already doubled or tripled their speed, to move even faster.
Without the money to hire more inspectors to meet the increased workload, the government is turning an increasing share of the safety responsibilities over to the industry.
"They're inspecting more and more chickens, with fewer and fewer people. And the lines run faster and faster, and salmonella contamination is growing greater and greater," said Carol Tucker Foreman, assistant secretary for food and consumer services under President Carter. Ms. Foreman now is a consumer advocate in Washington.
No government or regulatory testing for bacteria is regularly done at any U.S. poultry plant today. Scientists don't have enough test data to even know how few bacteria it takes to make someone sick, so regulators have no idea where to set a safe limit.
Three times in the past five years, the National Academy of Sciences urged regular testing for the bacteria that cause food poisoning. To ensure consumer safety, the academy also recommended changes in the slaughter and processing. The suggestions were largely ignored by USDA, according to academy reports.
Congressional attempts to improve regulatory enforcement have also met with little success. When legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate four years ago to strengthen poultry inspection, the bill never made it out of committee. It was the last significant congressional effort at change.
State among top producers
Americans now consume as much chicken each year as they once consumed in a decade.
Pacing the increased demand for chicken, millions of birds go whirring down conveyor lines daily in slaughterhouses in Georgia and other Southeastern states. Georgia, Alabama and Arkansas produce half the chicken Americans eat and much of the chicken eaten around the world.
As the speed of the lines increases, there are too few federal inspectors to ensure that poultry products are free of disease and contamination, USDA inspectors, congressional experts and consumer advocates said.
The number of USDA meat and poultry inspectors has dropped 7.5 percent, from 7,758 inspectors in 1975 to 7,174 today. In that same period, the number of chickens produced in the United States and requiring federal inspection jumped 100 percent.
Hundreds of vacant poultry inspector positions have gone unfilled for lack of funding. The Southeast has the most acute shortage, with 217 of 1,816 positions unfilled last month.
USDA officials say they have handled staff shortages by relaxing the inspection standards and by turning inspection over to the companies.
"We don't do all the product checks we should be doing," said Dr. James D. Willis, Southeast regional director of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "Sometimes we have to sacrifice those because of staff shortages."
Rotten meat is easy to spot. But the question of microbiological safety of chicken is a far more urgent problem.
Microscopic bacteria like salmonella occur naturally on chickens and, though not harmful to them, can be deadly to humans.
Many scientists believe the salmonella contamination rate has doubled in 20 years. Up to 80 percent of the chicken coming from poultry plants is contaminated with salmonella, according to an unreleased 1989 USDA draft report in which analysts tested 1,500 carcasses at five large Southeastern poultry plants. That compares with about 10 percent for beef or pork.
The presence in chicken of campylobacter bacteria is higher still. Although not as well-known as salmonella, the bacteria are thought to cause twice as much food poisoning.
Dr. Norman J. Stern, a USDA microbiologist in Athens and an authority on campylobacter, recently found 98 percent of the ready-to-eat store-bought chickens he tested in Athens contaminated with the bug.
"The average chicken you buy today in any store has enough campylobacter on it to make 1,000 people very sick," he said. But, he added, "nobody eats raw chicken, so nobody gets those doses."
Ralph George, 54, an on-line inspector at the ConAgra plant in Dalton, like m any inspectors feels trapped between the speeding lines and the need to protect the consumer. "I'm ashamed to even let people know I'm a USDA inspector. There are thousands of diseased and unwholesome birds going right on down the lines that we can't catch."
The Atlanta Journal Constitution
By Scott Bronstein - Staff writer
June 2, 1991- Page D/1
Second of a two-part series, "Chicken: How Safe?" in which the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examines the high cost of cheap chicken. Today's main story examines the high incidence of often job-ending injuries (particularly tendinitis and carpal runnel syndrome) among poultry processing workers. Thousands of poultry workers have required surgery as a result of damage to nerves and tendons in wrists or hands. No one is sure how many poultry workers are being injured because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not regularly monitor repeated trauma cases or accidents involving knives, saws or other machinery. GAINESVILLE, Ga. - Every seven seconds for eight hours a day, Maria Reyes picks up a 10-pound bag full of quartered chicken legs and twists it closed with both hands. Then, with a deft circling motion, she seals it with a clasp in her right hand - about 80 pounds every minute, 4,800 pounds every hour, 19 tons of chicken every day.
By the end of her week at the Mar-Jac poultry plant in Gainesville, the self-proclaimed Chicken Capital of the World, the pain shoots up both of her arms and a 2-inch-long knot rises along her right wrist. She wears a splint. Her sister, Ana-Maria, 46, who fills and seals giblet bags, has had a similar knot on her right wrist for more than a year.
"It hurts when I sweep, or try to hold things, even when I do the dishes," said Miss Reyes, 35. Her sister chimed in, "I can't raise my arm above my head because it hurts so badly. My daughter has to help me put on my hairnet each morning."
To keep pace on poultry production lines moving twice as fast as a decade ago, the human components of the highly automated poultry processing machinery, such as Miss Reyes, her sister, and her niece, Ana-Isabel, must move their arms in quick staccato fashion to slice, wrap, cut, and, on occasion, rip apart raw chicken with their hands.
The repetitive motions often cause what are called repeated trauma disorders. They range from simple tendinitis in the wrists or shoulders to carpal tunnel syndrome, which can leave a worker virtually crippled, requiring corrective surgery.
Thousands of poultry workers across Georgia and other poultry states have required carpal tunnel surgery as a result of damage to nerves and tendons in wrists or hands. About 5 percent of the injuries result in permanent disabilities, federal safety officials said.
No one today can be sure exactly how many poultry workers are being injured because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not regularly monitor repeated trauma cases or accidents involving knives, saws or other machinery. But repetitive motion injuries have in the last few years become the most common occupational illness in the United States. Today, more than half of all reported occupational illnesses involve repeated trauma, say officials at the U.S. Department of Labor. And poultry plant workers are injured through repeated trauma more often than workers in any other U.S. industry except red-meat packing.
`Don't have an answer yet'
Industry officials acknowledge the high number of worker hand and arm injuries, but the solution for many companies is to eliminate the jobs through greater automation - with the likely result that bacterial contamination of chicken caused by such machinery will get worse.
"We're well aware of the problem. And we don't have an answer for it yet," said Harold Ford, executive vice president for the Southeastern Poultry and Egg Association.
"We're trying to be responsive. We don't want our employees to suffer working for us," said Mr. Ford. "We're reaching the point, because of worker complaints and insurance problems and the OSHA on our backs, that we have no choice but to look for more automation that can replace the people in the plants. That means you'll have more people in these rural communities unemployed. Many are not skilled, and they're not going to be able to go out and get other jobs overnight."
Each morning across the U.S. poultry belt - in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina - tens of thousands of workers report to poultry processing lines. In the Gainesville area, where Miss Reyes works, the work force is predominantly Mexican. Elsewhere in Georgia, in cities such as Buena Vista, Athens, Macon and Carrollton, and in other poultry belt states poultry workers are mostly black.
Whatever their race or national origin, however, the workers are overwhelmingly female and, according to physicians, particularly susceptible to repeated trauma injuries.
Miss Reyes, her sister and niece are among the 12,000 Mexican workers who labor in Gainesville area poultry plants. Dressed in cotton smocks, hairnets and rubber boots, they join other shift workers streaming before dawn from the two-room cottages and cramped trailers of Gainesville's "Little Mexico." About one-third are in the United States illegally, workers themselves estimate.
From some Mexican villages, like Maria Reyes's hometown of Cinco de Febrero in the state of Durango, almost two-thirds of the population has moved to Gainesville in the past seven years. She crossed the border into the United States two years ago, unable to speak English - and the $6-an-hour poultry job was the only work she could find. In Mexico, she operated a word processor for the government.
`I feel like I'm trapped'
While many of the injured American poultry workers try to seek help from state workers' compensation boards, or even at times through the courts, most Mexicans cannot even complain about working conditions.
They worry that if they do, they could jeopardize their jobs and their continued presence in the United States. A quick call to immigration authorities could settle a labor dispute at many plants.
Teodoro Maus, the Mexican consul in Atlanta, finds conditions in the poultry industry disheartening. "It's tragic - these people come here to work, and they'll work 20 hours a day under the worst conditions with little complaint, because they feel they have no choice," he said. "What's worse is that there are companies willing to take advantage of these people, have them working under these horrible conditions, knowing they will never speak up."
Looking down at her swollen hands at the end of the week, Maria Reyes grows silent for a moment. Then she says quietly through an interpreter, "I feel like I'm trapped. I cannot get a better job because even though I have skills, I don't speak the language. If I complain, they send me home without pay, and then I have nothing."
Her sister nods in agreement: "We rarely complain at work. We can lose our job. Or worse, they send us back to Mexico."
Hand and wrist injuries have been well-documented at a few poultry plants in recent years. Federal work safety officials say the injury rate is alarming:
One in five poultry workers has been seriously injured in the hands, wrists or shoulders, many requiring surgery, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) experts say.
Poultry processing and slaughtering had an average of 15 percent more repeated trauma injuries in 1989 than the motor vehicle assembly industry and 118 percent more than the shipbuilding industry.
An estimated one in three poultry plant workers today suffers severe pain in the arms, wrists or shoulders, according to Thomas Hales, a medical epidemiologist at NIOSH.
Poultry processing was ranked the 24th most hazardous U.S. industry in 1989, out of 697 ranked, for injuries and illnesses causing lost work time. It was worse than coal mining, auto manufacturing and construction, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
'This is a huge problem'
"This is a huge problem throughout the poultry industry," said Dr. Hales, who has helped design studies on workers in several poultry plants, including the Cargill Inc. plant in Buena Vista and a Perdue Farms plant in North Carolina. "I would say one-third of the workers on production lines throughout the poultry industry today are suffering from repetitive trauma disorders."
Georgia legislators are studying a bill introduced this year to change state workers' compensation laws. In part, it would make it harder for poultry workers with repeated trauma injuries, like carpal tunnel syndrome, to qualify for compensation, say workers' comp attorneys.
The bill's chief author, Rep. Jim Griffin (D-Tunnel Hill), said he is unsure how it would affect carpal tunnel cases, but said the measure is designed to save the state money. "I think a big problem with workers' compensation today is that it's paying for things it shouldn't pay for. That's what we need to fix."
Poultry processing workers, who average $6.90 an hour, are among the lowest-paid workers in the United States, labor statistics show. Poultry processing pays its workers the lowest wages of all food manufacturing industries in the country.
In Georgia in 1990, the average weekly pretax wage for poultry workers, $314.78, was significantly lower than that of manufacturing and construction workers. While many Mexican workers in Gainesville do not complain because they fear deportation, poultry workers in other towns - many of them single mothers - say simply they cannot afford to risk the regular pay.
Alice Denise Fletcher, 32, cut breast meat from chickens on the processing line at the Choctaw Maid Farms plant in Carthage, Miss., for a decade. The single mother earned about $5 an hour to pay the bills and feed her three children.
Every other second of every minute she worked on the processing line, she grabbed a chicken with her left hand, and with a quick twisting motion sliced the breast meat away from the bird with a small knife in her right hand, more than 14,000 chickens every day.
In 1988, Ms. Fletcher's right wrist began to hurt so much she had difficulty holding her knife. The company sent her to a doctor, who gave her medication and took her off the line for one day. Then the pain began again.
"It got worse, and they never would let me go to the doctor after that first time," she says today. After a few months she could scarcely use her hand at all. A personal physician in Jackson offered an independent diagnosis: severe carpal tunnel syndrome. In 1989 and 1990, she underwent surgery on her right wrist a total of three times.
Today she assembles lamps at a workshop for the handicapped in Kosciusko, Miss. She gets paid $1.50 an hour and gets food stamps to feed her children.
"I blame the chicken plant for injuring me. I ain't going to be able to use my hands the same way ever again," she said.
Ricky Rayborn, human resources director at the plant, would not address Ms. Fletcher's case. "We operate a safe plant, and we do everything we can to prevent injuries," he said. "When an injury does take place, we make sure the injured workers are taken care of through proper medical procedures and medical personnel."
For some, permanent damage
In interviews, more than 40 injured workers from a dozen different poultry plants said they were discouraged or even prevented from seeing doctors when they complained of pain.
The workers said they had to complain as many as half a dozen times over a month or more before they were allowed by plant nurses to see a company doctor.
In spite of notes from doctors, some were fired after they were injured, according to workers' compensation attorneys. In some cases, workers said, company doctors told them nothing was wrong. When they sought a second opinion, they learned from other physicians that they had been severely injured, often requiring surgery.
"If you don't intervene and remove these workers and treat their injuries, and you progress to the carpal tunnel stage, then these can be disabling injuries," said Dr. Hales. "They can be irreversible in some of these workers."
David H. Moskowitz, a workers' compensation lawyer in Decatur who has represented more than 75 injured poultry workers in South Georgia, said he often has to fight with companies before they will allow injured workers to see company doctors. "It's like something you'd imagine out of the Soviet Union," he said. "It's hard to believe someone injured in the course of employment should have to go through this much turmoil just to get appropriate medical treatment in a democratic society."
Linda C. Cromer, an organizer with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which represents about 10 plants across the poultry belt, says the industry "has reached a crisis situation." "Processors have proven they will not willingly make these jobs more safe. It's up to enlightened consumers and workers with unions to force safe and necessary changes in the industry," she said. In 1989, the Empire Kosher Foods poultry plant in Mifflintown, Pa., was fined $1.36 million by OSHA for "knowingly and willfully" exposing workers to cumulative trauma injuries. It was the first such fine in the country - but not the last.
That same year, Cargill's plant in Buena Vista was fined $242,000 and also cited for "knowingly and willfully" injuring about half its workers.
The plants - and others fined later - contested the government action. In some cases, settlements are still pending. But Empire Kosher Foods, Cargill and other companies have started new safety programs as a result of government pressure.
`Strength just leaves my hands'
But many critics say the speed of production lines is the major reason for the continuing high rate of injuries. The lines have not been slowed.
Some plants rotate workers in an effort to reduce injuries, but many workers say they still experience pain.
For Ann Moultry, 47, and others like her, the poultry plants are often the best work they can find.
"It's true, it's a good-paying job. And those are hard to find around here," she said. For seven years she has been grading and hanging 41 chickens a minute at the Southland Broilers Inc. plant in Enterprise, Ala. Last year, she was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome and underwent surgery on both wrists. She can now do only light work at the plant.
"At times I can't even wring a bath rag out," she said. "The strength just leaves my hands."
Color photo: [Images not available] Crippled hand: Stitches show where surgery was performed on a poultry worker / Michael A. Schwarz / Staff -- Color photo: Its claim to fame: On its water tower and elsewhere, Gainesville heralds itself as the "Poultry Capital of the World" / Michael A. Schwarz / staff -- Illustration: Carpal tunnel syndrome
Many poultry workers suffer from the syndrome, which occurs when a major nerve is compressed as is passes through a narrow tunnel of bone and ligament at the wrist. This median nerve conducts sensation from part of the hand up the arm. When it is compressed, the result is numbness, tingling, "pins and needles," burning and pain in the fingers and hand. Cross-section diagram of the human hand shows location of radial artery, tendons, median nerve, carpal tunnel, and deep branch of ulnar nerve and artery.