December 19 was a bad day for chicken consumers. Just in time for Christmas dinner, Consumer Reports published a report highlighting the danger posed by the high rate of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in U.S. poultry aisles. Microbes that can resist multiple drugs lurked in about half of the more than 300 samples of raw chicken breasts tested. What's more, most of the chicken, regardless of brand or label, had bacteria like E. coli and salmonella.
Another study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts analyzed two multistate outbreaks of salmonella infections, pointing the finger at weak federal regulations for controlling salmonella in poultry, and criticized the government for timidity in recalling contaminated meat.
At the same time these alarms are sounding, the USDA is getting ready to "modernize" the system with -- you guessed it -- less inspection.
So there's a new version of the age-old question: Which came first? the corporate chicken industry or safety violations and lax inspections? Corporate Chicken of course. Companies like Tyson and Pilgrim's Pride have been lobbying for years to get out from under inspections, and it looks like they've finally succeeded.
The Obama administration is poised to finalize a rule to cut 75 percent of USDA inspectors and put companies in charge of inspecting their own plants. But it'll be ok if they miss a little dirt and doo-doo, because the chicken will be sprayed with bleach just in case. Health and safety groups are petitioning the USDA to just say no.
To be sure, the chicken is a noble bird and has fed many a pastor on Sunday. But these latest reports got me to thinking. When we're talkin' chicken, who pays, and who profits?
Looking at the bottom line, KFC is definitely the Big Bird at the retail level, with over $4 billion in annual sales. Chick-Fil-A, Popeyes, and Church's round out the top tier. So it's pretty easy to see who profits. Even lowest ranked Boston Market raked in half a billion. Tyson is the big kahuna when it comes to processing.
And who pays? Customers, of course, at the supermarket and increasingly in doctor's offices. But workers also suffer -- in wages, health, and safety. Tyson Foods has faced more than $500,000 in safety penalties since 2007, and 11 of its workers have died on the job since 1999. KFC pays just a few cents over the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. KFC workers joined others in the fast food industry to stage a series of one-day strikes over wages this summer, and the company recently settled a class action lawsuit brought by 13,000 employees who were denied breaks and overtime required by law.
This shows us why chicken is cheap -- chicken sellers and processors are even cheaper.
They do spend some money though. In addition to lobbying for less regulation, the industry PR machine cranks out the propaganda during the "National Chicken Month" celebration every September. Websites suggest myriad ways to observe the bird. Eat more chicken! Do the chicken dance! Read Chicken Little!
Here are some ideas that didn't make the official list. Sign the petition against the new rule, ask Congress to raise the minimum wage, and "Eat Less Chikin."
Listen to the 2 minute radio commentary here: