When Will We Learn?

November 18, 2021

ProPublica published an article a couple of weeks ago that had me scratching my head in confusion. And then I got well…angry.

It seems that back in May of 2018, a rare and quite virulent strain of salmonella (infantis) caught the media’s attention. In less than two months, the bacteria had made more than a dozen people sick. Strains of the bacteria were found in chicken breasts, sausages and wings during routine sampling at poultry plants. 

Cases surfaced nationwide with victims landing in the hospital with stomach pains, diarrhea and violent vomiting. The source of the infections seemed to be everywhere, from farms to poultry processing plants to supermarkets and restaurants. And it turned out that this strain of salmonella was invincible against nearly all the drugs routinely used to combat severe food poisoning.

As this became a public health threat, you might think that federal regulators would act quickly and strongly to warn the public of the threat from contaminated poultry. You might expect that the contaminated food would be recalled and the practices that allowed it to flourish would be compelled to change. You would expect that federal investigators would pursue the root cause of the outbreak.

But none of that happened.

Nine months after the first outbreak, the CDC closed the investigation even though people continued to become ill. Nothing was done by the USDA, whose job it is to oversee meat and poultry. And so, supermarkets and restaurants continued to see chicken tainted with this drug-resistant salmonella.

The bad news is that they continue to sell it to this day.

The ProPublica investigation revealed that all of this is the result of a largely powerless food safety system that continues to cave under the weight of industry influence and special interest.

You may think that the meat and poultry you find in your market is safe with the USDA seal on it but it’s important to note that the agency doesn’t prohibit manufacturers from selling chicken contaminated with dangerous strains of salmonella. You read right. Even when people are sickened by the food, this agency has no power to order recalls. It has no authority to control salmonella at the farm level; it can’t order a suspension of operation when contamination is found on the factory level.

All the USDA can do is conduct a review of the plant and farm and this rarely leads to a shutdown or suspension of operation.

In response to this information being released (yet again) about salmonella and our government’s inability to really regulate food safety, the USDA announced that it was “rethinking its approach to salmonella.” Rethinking it?? Not changing it; not yet; simply rethinking it.

Sandra Eskin, the agency’s deputy undersecretary for food safety said, “We’re going to really take a look at everything we could look at and, I hope, develop a different approach that winds up being more effective.”

You do that, Sandra.

According to ProPublica, “Scientific advancements over the last decade have provided the USDA with tools to identify the most dangerous strains of salmonella. But the agency isn’t using those tools to prevent it from spreading in our food supply.

One internal CDC presentation noted that this single strain is “responsible for an estimated 11,000-17,000 illnesses per year.” But the CDC is limited in its ability to protect American consumers from foodborne illnesses. It has no power to order companies to take action or to provide information that would help it solve outbreaks.”

Wow, right? With this latest in a long line or articles about food safety, I got to wondering (and to the point of this article). What will it take for us to stop eating poultry (and meat)? Especially since our federal regulators clearly can’t make it safe for us to consume.

I can see the social media trolls now, rubbing their typing fingers together in anticipation of the cruel and awful things they will write to me in response to this article. But it’s time we faced the facts here. Aside from the saturated fat and cholesterol problems associated with eating animal products; aside from the cruelty associated with the production of animals for food; is there anything scarier than the thought of eating chicken…knowing what we now know?

I was watching a cooking show and the host was preparing chicken and giving a litany of precautions to take before eating it. By the time she was done with warnings, I was half expecting her to slip on a hazmat suit to ensure her safety against any possible contamination by chicken.

And we eat this? On purpose?

I get it. You like chicken. It’s easy to cook with and versatile and everyone in your family will eat it. But you have to wonder what impact you’re having on your family since at no time in human history have we eaten so much chicken. From nuggets to wings and everything in between, the average American eats nearly 123 pounds of chicken per year…and most of it, as it turns out, is contaminated.

Holy salmonella, Batman! And we wonder why our wellness has become such a struggle with about 1 million of us becoming ill from eating contaminated chicken each year.

That’s a lot of chicken and a lot of people being made sick from it.

So why am I writing about this now? In the middle of the holiday season, when we want to have more fun; hang with those we love and enjoy life’s little pleasures?

Because the New Year cometh and with it, our usual bout of resolutions (most of which we won’t keep). I’d like you to consider…just consider taking chicken out of your diet.

Consider alternatives to chicken and meat, like tofu, tempeh, beans and seitan. Consider that we truly don’t need the level of protein we have been conditioned to believe we need. Consider that we are continuing to live through a global pandemic which has become a commentary on so much about our modern life, from social and economic inequities to how ill-equipped so many of us are to fight off disease naturally because we are metabolically unfit to fight the fight.

It’s time to rethink how we feed ourselves: for our own wellness; the animals we slaughter and for the planet. Let’s start by ditching chicken.