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What to Know About Activist Group's Lawsuit against USDA Over "Fecal Matter"

By Susan Kelly

The Meating Place

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine said it filed a lawsuit this week (April 18) accusing USDA of ignoring concerns over fecal contamination of chicken. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks to compel USDA to comply with the Administrative Procedure Act and respond to a petition the Physicians Committee submitted in 2013 requesting the agency regulate feces as an adulterant under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.

The group said a study it conducted in 2011 tested 120 chicken products sold by 15 grocery store chains in 10 U.S. cities for the presence of fecal bacteria. Forty-eight percent of the products tested positive for feces.

The petition argues that the public deserves fair notice that food products deemed wholesome by USDA are actually adulterated under a reasonable reading of federal law.

The lawsuit also claims that USDA violated the Freedom of Information Act by failing to respond to a 2017 request seeking documentation of fecal contamination rates detected in poultry slaughter plants and other data related to poultry inspection and slaughter line speed.

North American Meat Institute Responds

In a statement emailed to Meatingplace, the North American Meat Institute said there is zero tolerance for feces on meat carcasses.

"It’s no surprise that the pseudo-medical animal rights group Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine doesn’t know the difference between fecal contamination and bacteria on meat products," said KatieRose McCullough, director of regulatory and scientific affairs for the institute. "If an inspector finds contamination, a carcass must be cleaned, trimmed or condemned."

Meat companies test for the presence of bacteria such as E. coli because it can signal the presence of pathogenic bacteria from the GI tract that can potentially make someone sick, but finding it does not automatically mean feces is present, McCullough said. When pathogenic E. coli is found, it is an adulterant and the raw product does not enter the marketplace, she noted.

The North American Meat Institute has a fact sheet addressing confusion over feces vs. bacteria that can be viewed here.

(Updates with statement from the North American Meat Institute.)

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