Birdwatching, Government style

Posted: Nov 01, 2006 12:01 AM
Birdwatching, Government style

Here's a job that's really for the birds: staring at dead chickens.

The job is tedious, done in unpleasant places, and largely useless. But you and I pay thousands of people to do it.

A federal website for job hunters says the Department of Agriculture has "many vacancies -- nationwide" for "bright, energetic and committed people like you to carry out its mission to protect consumers by ensuring the meat, poultry and egg supply is safe, wholesome and truthfully labeled." So if staring at dead chickens is your idea of a good time, there is a job for you with the USDA, inspecting poultry. And don't worry that you'll lose the job because it doesn't do much good -- how often does that cause the government to close a program?

I learned about these dead-bird watchers when a union, Government Workers Local 2357, persuaded "20/20" go into poultry-processing plants with hidden cameras to document their claim that conditions in the plants are deplorable and that chickens are contaminated with bacteria.

Inside the plants, with bird intestines strung all over the place, it was easy to see why the chickens we buy are often crawling with germs. In fact, we had a lab perform tests, and they found four kinds of bacteria: yersinia, salmonella, listeria and campylobacter. Food-borne bacteria can be deadly; it kills hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans every year. Hundreds of thousands of people get sick from it. Many of you who thought you had the stomach flu this year really had food poisoning from bacteria. We should treat raw chicken as if it were covered in fecal matter -- it's crawling with bacteria. Keep it away from the salad, and wash the cutting board.

Local 2357 had a different solution: The government must hire more union inspectors. Apparently if more people stared at the birds, they'd be better at seeing invisible germs.

The Department of Agriculture already has inspectors inside every plant. An inspector must visually examine each bird as it slides by on the assembly line. Hiring more inspectors would make that work easier, but I wondered: Would it really make chicken safer?

Twenty years ago, epidemiologist Glenn Morris was asked by the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the inspection system. He and other scientists concluded that it made little sense, because what the inspectors can see isn't usually what makes people sick.

A chicken could look terrible and still not make us sick. It's bacteria that make people sick, and without a microscope, you can't see bacteria. "Birds that have no evidence of feces whatsoever may be covered with campylobacter and salmonella," said Morris.

When the inspection program began, the government assumed visible signs of disease and discolorations in the skin meant that chicken would be a danger to people. But we've known better for years. It would make much more sense to do microbial testing: take samples off the line and put them in Petrie dishes to see what kind of bacteria grows. So has the government stopped dead-bird watching? No.

Government rarely stops anything.

The chicken industry likes things the way they are because it gets free employees. They have taxpayer-paid inspectors to make sure all the birds look good; the inspectors even stamp the bacteria-laden birds with a government label that promises they're wholesome.

Microbial testing of random samples would be cheaper. And scientists told us the best protection would be to treat poultry with cobalt irradiation, which kills virtually all disease-causing organisms and doesn't require paying government inspectors to watch dead birds go by.

But that's not what the union wanted reported.

Although the government now does some microbial testing, the USDA still pays inspectors to stare at every chicken. After all, that keeps all the players working. Businesses get free employees. Employees get jobs. Unions get dues. The government gets our money.

Imagine what would happen if you could watch your tax dollars as closely as the federal government watches dead chickens.