(KXAN/CNN) — A consumer rights advocacy group wants the government to require meat distributors to put a message on the food they send out to grocery stores — “may contain feces.”
According to CNN, the attorney for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine says the recommendation is tongue-in-cheek. The organization represents 12,000 physicians who aim to promote plant-based diets and ethical scientific research.
Joke or not, the PCRM has real concerns about the US Department of Agriculture’s food safety inspection system.
The US Department of Agriculture says it has a “zero tolerance policy for fecal material on meat and poultry.”
USDA said it sends inspectors out to facilities who look at a large amount of meat selected throughout the day. Should inspectors find fecal material on an animal carcass, they make sure that contaminated meat can’t enter the food supply, USDA said.
PCRM’s attorney, however, says USDA’s current inspection policy isn’t enough because it only applies to fecal matter that’s “visible” on the production line.
Additionally, the USDA has relaxed its rules on the speed at which poultry companies can process birds. The requirement was 140 birds per minute, but was raised to 175 birds per minute.
This gives line workers about three birds to scan per second — a rate deemed too fast to see any fecal matter.
For at least six years, the PCRM has been asking questions about fecal matter contained in birds and they recently filed a lawsuit in Washington, DC federal district court.
“Nobody wants to eat feces,” Deborah Press, PCRM’s attorney says.
However, the concern extends beyond just ickiness: microbes like E. coli are found in feces.
Despite these concerns, they say they’re not getting answers from the government about its food inspection procedures.
In 2013, PCRM sent a petition to USDA asking for it to change its rules regarding fecal contamination.
During a test of chicken products, the PCRM found 48 percent of the meat tested positive for fecal contamination.
The PCRM filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2017, requesting “records regarding the number of USDA poultry inspectors, detection rates for visible fecal contamination in poultry, average poultry line speed, USDA poultry inspection rates, and inspection training.”
Their current lawsuit says the USDA violated the act by failing to respond to the request. Federal law requires that agencies respond to FOIA requests within 20 days of reciept, according to the Digital Media Law Project.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture told CNN that USDA can’t comment on pending litigation.
According to the PCRM, the requirement around “visible” fecal contamination is disguising what is happening to chickens during the poultry line.
The group cites an unnamed federal inspector who spoke to them:
“We often see birds going down the line with intestines still attached, which are full of fecal contamination. 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 bird would then get into a vat of water, where remaining fecal matter can wash out and could settle on other bird carcasses in the tank. The inspector said this is sometimes referred to as “fecal soup.”
According to Press, while the complaint will have a hard time holding up in court, she believes change can happen.