Living in Society

Chickens on the Road


SOLON— In this small town, people got to talking about the food supply chain when a cooler full of processed chickens fell off a truck destined for the local food bank. The chickens were rejected after the media publicity generated a call from a government agency saying the poultry could not be distributed to the needy. Someone else stepped up with substitute chickens to fill the gap, which can happen in our good hearted community.

That someone raised chickens for the food bank is pretty cool, but is not the whole story. The chickens were discarded because they were not USDA inspected and stamped at a small slaughter abattoir, not because they fell off the truck. As a culture, we are overly reliant on a government food inspection system that may play a role in our legal system, but does not make common sense. It is an example of how we have lost touch with where food comes from and what home cooks have to do to make sure they serve healthy, nutritious meals. The town will be talking about this incident for a while.

On Aug. 30, 1890, President Benjamin Harrison signed the first law requiring inspection of meat products. The law required that USDA, through the Bureau of Animal Industry, inspect salted pork and bacon intended for exportation. Exports of U.S. livestock, and meat products, had fallen under increasingly stringent restrictions by foreign countries. Producers urged the U.S. government to create an inspection program to enable them to compete in foreign markets. Over the years, inspections came to protect the giant agribusinesses and prevent entry, and run out of business, small scale operators like the slaughter abattoir mentioned.

With the rise of consumerism during the 20th Century, notably after Upton Sinclair published his exposé of Chicago slaughterhouses in 1905, meat inspections became de rigueur. President Theodore Roosevelt led passage of the Meat Inspection Act, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, after overcoming his initial dislike for Sinclair. While the slaughterhouses were undeniably gross, as Joel Salatin pointed out in his book, “Folks, This Ain’t Normal,” there is no substantial evidence of mass meat adulteration or related human sickness prior to Sinclair’s reports.  For more information about the history of U.S. meat inspections, click here.

The consumer protection side of this issue gained public attention during a 1993 outbreak of e. coli bacteria in ground meat. Following the Al-Qaeda attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, food security came under the umbrella of homeland security concerns. The fear of pathogens in our food supply has become an obsession among some, and the Solon incident is evidence of how ridiculous things have become. What whit of difference would the USDA stamp have made on this batch of chickens? None whatsoever.

Arthur Schlesinger, in his book, “The Cycles of American History,” had me asking the rhetorical question, “what mood are you in?” It seems clear to me that the public purpose we once held our politicians and public figures to has given way to private interest… to the extent a farmer can’t raise chickens and give them to the needy in our society without some petty bourgeois official saying, “no, it’s against the rules, and my corporate masters have deemed them unsafe.” What a sad state of affairs this is, one that serves large corporations more than people who both have chickens and hunger, but prevents them from getting together.