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Tyson slaughter plant

Cross-contamination—the infection of kitchen implements, surfaces, or food during preparation before cooking—is considered the predominant cause of food poisoning.387 “It does not require much imagination,” reads a public health textbook, “to appreciate the ease with which a few hundred bacteria can be transferred from, say, a fresh broiler [chicken] covered in a million bacteria to a nearby bit of salad or piece of bread.”388

Knowing that poultry is the most common cause of food poisoning in the home, microbiologists had 50 people take chicken straight from a supermarket and prepare a meal with it as they normally would in their own kitchen. The researchers then took samples from such kitchen staples as sponges, dishcloths, and hand towels, and tested them for the presence of disease-causing bacteria like Campylobacter and Salmonella. They found multiple contaminated samples. “Antibacterial” dishwashing liquid did not seem to offer any protection. They conclude, “Pathogenic bacteria can be recovered relatively frequently from the kitchen environment.”389 Some animal parts are so contaminated that the CDC recommends that during preparation the household meat handler find caretakers to supervise his or her children so as not to infect them.390

The risk of cross-contamination with the bird flu virus may be especially high because it exists not just in the meat, but on it. The World Health Organization describes where most bird flu infections have originated: “[D]irect touching of poultry or poultry feces contaminated surfaces, eating uncooked poultry products (e.g., blood) or preparing poultry have been considered the probable routes of exposure leading to infection in most older children and adults.”391 Unfortunately, the “poultry feces contaminated surfaces” may be our countertops. “Influenza virus is excreted in the feces,” a CDC epidemiologist explains. “Chickens and ducks have fecal matter all over them.”392

Medical researchers at the University of Minnesota recently took more than a thousand food samples from multiple retail markets and found evidence of fecal contamination in 69% of the pork and beef and 92% of the poultry samples, as evidenced by contamination with the intestinal bug E. coli.393 This confirms USDA baseline data stating, astonishingly, that “greater than 99% of broiler carcasses had detectable E. coli.”394 “If chicken were tap water,” journalist Nicols Fox writes in her widely acclaimed book Spoiled, “the supply would be cut off.”395

Most Americans don’t realize that our poultry supply is contaminated with fecal matter. Delmer Jones, president of the U.S. Meat Inspection Union, describes the current USDA labels as misleading to the public. He suggests, “The label should declare that the product has been contaminated with fecal material.”396 Eric Schlosser in Fast Food Nation proposes a more straight-forward approach: “There is shit in the meat.”397

How did it get there? After chickens are shackled, stunned, have their necks cut, and bleed to death, they are scalded, defeathered, and have their heads and feet removed. The next step is evisceration. Birds are typically gutted by a machine that uses a metal hook to pull out their guts.398 The intestines are often ripped in the process, spilling the contaminated contents over the carcass. If even a single bird is infected, the machinery is then contaminated and can pass infection down the line. In one study, when one chicken was inoculated with a tracer bacteria, the next 42 birds subsequently processed were found to be cross-infected. Sporadic contamination occurred up to the 150th bird.399 The World Health Organization concludes that large, centralized, and mechanized slaughter plants may “create hazards for the human food chain.”400

Millions of chickens miss the killing blade and are drowned in the scalding tanks every year,401 in part because the USDA does not include poultry under the protections of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.402 The birds, still conscious, may defecate in the tanks and inhale water polluted by fecal leakage into their lungs,403 which can lead to further contamination of the carcass down the line.404 So-called “controlled atmosphere killing,” which uses inert gases to essentially put the birds to sleep, is a more hygienic method of slaughter.405

According to former USDA microbiologist Gerald Kuester, “there are about 50 points during processing where cross-contamination can occur. At the end of the line, the birds are no cleaner than if they had been dipped in a toilet.”406 The toilet, in this case, is the chill water bath at the end of the line in which the birds’ remains soak for an hour to increase profitability by adding water weight to the carcass. At this point, the bath water is more of a chilled fecal soup. This collective soak has been shown to increase contamination levels by almost a quarter. “That extra 24% of contamination the chill water adds,” writes Nicols Fox, “can be credited to pure greed.”407

As Fox points out in Spoiled, the microbiologist’s assertion that the “final product is no different than if you stuck it in the toilet and ate it” is not gross hyperbole. Gross, perhaps, but not hyperbole. In fact, the toilet might actually be safer than your sink. Researchers at the University of Arizona found more fecal bacteria in the kitchen—on sponges, dish towels, the sink drain, countertops—than they found swabbing the rim of the toilet.408 Comparing surfaces in bathrooms and kitchens in the same household, the investigators note that “consistently, kitchens come up dirtier.”409 The excess fecal contamination is presumed to come from raw animal products brought into the home. As Fox points out. “The bathroom is cleaner because people are not washing their chickens in the toilet.”410
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