So I was scrolling on my phone, minding my business, when I came across an article that truly disturbed me. The article was about how the USDA approved for diseased chicken to still be distributed to the public for purchase and consumption.

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You read that right!

Back in July 2020, the FSIS approved a petition from the National Chicken Council requesting that slaughterhouses be allowed to process broilers (a breed of chicken) infected with Avian Leukosis — a virus that causes chickens to develop cancerous lesions and tumors. Because this petition was approved, inspectors will no longer be required to examine the first 300 birds of each flock for signs of the disease. And because that’s no longer a thing, processors are able to just cut off tumors and lesions and then process the rest of the bird as normal.

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The approval has led to a proposed rule change that is now before the food safety administrator Paul Kiecker.

But what is Avian Leukosis and why is approved to be served to us?

Here’s what we know:

A small percentage of birds (less than 1%) are diagnosed with the virus each year, but it spreads quickly through flocks and tens of thousands of chickens are condemned annually due to exposure. While it’s unlikely that the virus could transfer from chickens to humans, it’s not impossible. There is some evidence that workers exposed to birds infected with the disease in the U.K. have developed antibodies, indicating a transfer of the virus from animal to human.

Parthapratim Basu, who served as the Chief Public Health Veterinarian for the FSIS from 2016 to 2018, explained that Avian Leukosis is caused by a retrovirus and can become a systemic disease that passes through the blood, at which point cutting out tumors would fail to eliminate the virus. “We have always had a motto in food safety: If it’s systemic, condemn it,” said Basu.

Tom Super, the NCC communications director, offered the following statement by email: “As a taxpayer and a consumer of chicken, I would much rather have the government focus their efforts on things that might actually make someone sick and have a real impact on public health, rather than looking for lesions, bumps and bruises that are easily trimmable.” 

But the timing of a rule change seems absurd. “We are dealing right now with a pandemic that transferred into humans from an animal source,” Basu added. “Sooner or later it will mutate,” he said of Avian Leukosis. “A poorly regulated meat industry could very well become the source of a new epidemic.” 

The CDC reports that “more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people can be spread from animals, and 3 out of every 4 new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals.

Other efforts to deregulate the chicken industry are similarly worrisome. The USDA is considering another proposed rule change requested by the NCC, which would allow all U.S. poultry factories to increase line speed rates from processing 140 to 175 birds per minute. (As Basu pointed out, it’s hard enough for line workers to detect symptoms of Avian Leukosis at current line speed rates — nearly three birds per second in many plants.)

The agency has already allowed dozens of poultry processors to increase processing line speeds to this rate, prompting America’s largest meatpacking union to sue over unsafe working conditions and legislators to introduce bills 1 to prevent faster production line speeds.  

“To speed up lines, when during a pandemic they should be slowing them down, is unconscionable,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist for the group, Food and Water Watch, who helped write the bills. “In my 20 years working on food safety law I have never seen anything like this.”

The solution to this latest food-safety imbroglio is clear: Kiecker should reject these proposed rule changes. Whatever these major companies and corporations would gain by being able to process more chickens per minute, as well as diseased chickens, does not outweigh the possible threats to public health.

What are your thoughts on this?