Nobody wants to think about consuming feces in their chicken or steak dinner, but trace amounts of fecal contamination are a reality that exists in store-bought meat. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture states they have a “zero tolerance” policy when it comes to fecal matter in meat,1 this only applies to feces that can be seen by workers on inspection lines.
These inspectors may view up to 175 chickens in a minute — far too many to catch every speck of poop that may be there.2 There’s an obvious yuck factor there, but in addition feces can contain E. coli and other pathogens that can make you sick.
With foodborne diseases causing 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths in the U.S. each year,3 it’s time the USDA stepped up to keep consumers safe, but so far they’re dodging responsibility instead.
USDA refuses to take action against poop in food
A 2011 study conducted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) found 48% of the 120 chicken products tested (obtained from 15 grocery chains in 10 U.S. cities) were contaminated with E. coli, commonly found in feces,4 prompting PCRM to state “chicken should carry feces warning labels”:5
“Who cares, the chicken industry says. If the feces are adequately cooked, any germs they harbor will be killed.
But feces may contain round worms, hair worms, tape worms, along leftover bits of whatever insects or larvae the chickens have eaten, not to mention the usual fecal components of digestive juices and various chemicals that the chicken was in the process of excreting.
Given the widespread nature of this disgusting problem, consumers deserve fair notice. It’s time for every package of supermarket chicken to carry a sticker that says, ‘Warning: May Contain Feces.’”
In response to the sickening findings, PCRM petitioned the USDA in 2013, requesting the USDA regulate feces as an adulterant under the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act.6
In its petition for rulemaking, the PCRM argued that the USDA’s standard of “no visible feces” is woefully inadequate and would be considered “disgusting by the average consumer.” According to PCRM, fecal bacteria really should be regulated as an adulterant.
The USDA failed to respond not only to the PCRM’s 2013 petition but also to a 2017 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, in which the physicians group sought “documentation of fecal contamination rates detected in poultry slaughter plants and other data related to poultry inspection and slaughter line speed.”7
The failure to respond prompted PCRM to file a lawsuit against the USDA over the fecal contamination issue, but the agency is still refusing to take action.
USDA says it won’t take action to get feces out of your food
In June 2019, the USDA announced they would not be taking further action to address concerns over feces in poultry and meat, again clinging to the rationale that fecal contamination is only a “visible defect.” According to PCRM:8
“USDA conceded that bacteria commonly found in feces are routinely present on meat and chicken products. USDA also agreed that the ‘presence of E. coli and other enteric bacteria on meat or poultry products indicates that the bacteria is likely associated with the intestinal tract.’
Nevertheless, USDA claimed that products containing these bacteria are not actually contaminated because, USDA argued, ‘fecal contamination is a visible defect’ only.”
The lawsuit, however, is still pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. It quotes a federal inspector who spoke about a “fecal soup” often seen during the poultry slaughtering process:9
“We often see birds going down the line with intestines still attached, which are full of fecal contamination. If there is no fecal contamination on the bird’s skin, however, we can do nothing to stop that bird from going down that line.
It is more than reasonable to assume that once the bird gets into the chill tank (a large vat of cold water), that contamination will enter the water and contaminate all of the other carcasses in the chiller. That’s why it is sometimes called ‘fecal soup.’”
In a 2013 FOIA request, PCRM obtained a USDA training video that also revealed chicken carcasses soaking in such water for up to one hour — right before getting packaged for consumers.10
“Since the agency is dodging its responsibility, consumers should protect themselves from fecal contamination by avoiding chicken and other meat products,” Deborah Dubow Press, associate general counsel for Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, said in a news release.11
Fecal contamination widespread in beef
Rather than avoiding all meat products, another option is to avoid conventional meat products raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), favoring grass fed animal products instead.
Consumer Reports tested the prevalence of bacteria in different types of ground beef. They purchased 300 packages of beef from 103 stores (including grocery, big box and natural food stores) in 26 U.S. cities and analyzed them for the presence of five types of disease-causing bacteria:12
The bacteria were further tested to reveal whether antibiotic resistance was present. The results revealed:13
- 100% of the ground beef samples contained bacteria associated with fecal contamination (enterococcus and/or nontoxin-producing E. coli). In humans, these bacteria can cause blood or urinary tract infections
- Nearly 20% contained Clostridium perfringens, bacteria responsible for an estimated 1 million cases of food poisoning each year in the U.S.
- 10% contained a toxin-producing strain of Staphylococcus aureus, which cannot be destroyed even with thorough cooking
- One% contained salmonella, which is responsible for an estimated 1.2 million illnesses and 450 deaths in the U.S. each year
- Three of the conventional samples had methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA); none of the sustainably raised beef samples contained MRSA
Conventional beef more likely to contain fecal bacteria
Notably, CAFO beef was not only more likely to be contaminated with bacteria but also to contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria than more sustainably raised meat, especially grass fed. According to Consumer Reports:14
“At a minimum, sustainably produced beef was raised without antibiotics. Even better are organic and grass-fed methods. Organic cattle are not given antibiotics or other drugs, and they are fed organic feed. Grass-fed cattle usually don’t get antibiotics, and they spend their lives on pasture, not feedlots.”
The study found 18% of conventional beef samples were contaminated with bacteria that were resistant to three or more classes of antibiotics; however, only 9% of sustainably produced beef contained resistant bacteria. As for grass fed, only 6% contained resistant superbugs.
Not only is choosing organic, grass fed animal products better for the environment, it’s also safer for your health. Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Food Safety and Sustainability at Consumer Reports, is among those who recommend choosing “grass fed organic beef” as much as possible:
“The most sustainable beef production systems don’t rely on any daily drugs, don’t confine animals and do allow them to eat a natural diet … Our findings show that more sustainable can mean safer meat,” he said.15
To find grass fed meat, the most dependable source is meat certified by the American Grassfed Association (AGA), which ensures animals were born and raised on American family farms, fed only grass and forage from weaning until harvest, have not been treated with hormones or antibiotics, and raised on pasture without confinement to feedlots.
Rodent hairs, mold and insect fragments allowed in your food
It’s safe to assume that there could be unlabeled, nonfood ingredients in some of your favorite food products. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’re harmful, but some, like insect parts, are certainly unappealing, and others, like rodent hair and mold, possibly could be harmful.
The U.S. FDA allows certain levels of “natural or unavoidable defects in foods for human use that present no health hazard.” According to the FDA, “The FDA set these action levels because it is economically impractical to grow, harvest or process raw products that are totally free of nonhazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”16
The FDA’s Food Defect Levels Handbook reveals what “natural or unavoidable defects” are allowable in your food, some of which may surprise you. The handbook sets “Food Defect Action Levels,” above which a food is considered adulterated. This means anything below the action level is fair game:17
Berries — Average mold count is 60% or more
Frozen broccoli — Average of 60 or more aphids and/or thrips and/or mites per 100 grams; Average of 10 or more whole insects or equivalent per 500 grams (excluding thrips, aphids and mites)
Ground cinnamon — Average of 400 or more insect fragments per 50 gram; Average of 11 or more rodent hairs per 50 grams
Chocolate — Average is 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams when 6 100-gram subsamples are examined; Any one subsample contains 90 or more insect fragments; Any one subsample contains three or more rodent hairs
Cocoa beans — More than 4% of beans by count are moldy; More than 4% of beans by count are insect-infested including insect-damaged; Average of 10 mg or more mammalian excreta per pound
Cranberry sauce — Average mold count is more than 15%; The mold count of any one subsample is more than 50%
Canned mushrooms — Average of over 20 or more maggots of any size per 100 grams of drained mushrooms and proportionate liquid or 15 grams of dried mushrooms; Average of more than 10% of mushrooms are decomposed
Frozen or canned peaches — Average of 3% or more fruit by count are wormy or moldy; In 12 1-pound cans or equivalent, one or more larvae and/or larval fragments whose aggregate length exceeds 5 millimeters
Strawberries — Average mold count of 45% or more and mold count of at least half of the subsamples is 55% or more
Tomato catsup — Average mold count in 6 subsamples is 55% or more
Wheat flour — Average of 75 or more insect fragments per 50 grams; Average of 1 or more rodent hairs per 50 grams
How to find the ‘cleanest’ food around
To find the safest sources of food, choose those being raised according to organic, grass fed and regenerative farming practices. This means avoiding CAFO animal products, which make up the majority of those sold at conventional grocery stores, and instead choosing those raised by grass fed farmers and using the AGA certified logo.
Another good option is biodynamically grown food. Biodynamic farming is organic by nature, but it goes even further, operating on the premise that the farm be entirely self-sustaining. In the U.S., biodynamic farms use the USDA organic standard as a foundation but have additional requirements, encompassing the principles of regenerative agriculture and more.
You can grow some of your own food as well, which can supplement your other natural food sources. As for potential contamination in your meat, Rangan said, “There’s no way to tell by looking at a package of meat or smelling it whether it has harmful bacteria or not … You have to be on guard every time.”18
Toward that end, take commonsense precautions to avoid contaminating other foods and kitchen surfaces and spreading any bacteria that may be present to yourself or others. To avoid cross-contamination between foods in your kitchen, adhere to the following recommendations:
- Use a designated cutting board for raw meat and poultry, and don’t use this board for other food preparation, such as cutting up vegetables. Color coding your cutting boards is a simple way to distinguish between them.
- To sanitize your cutting board, use hot water and detergent. Simply wiping it off with a rag will not destroy the bacteria.
- For an inexpensive, safe and effective kitchen counter and cutting board sanitizer, use 3% hydrogen peroxide and vinegar. Keep each liquid in a separate spray bottle, and then spray the surface with one, followed by the other, and wipe off.
- Coconut oil can also be used to clean, treat and sanitize your wooden cutting boards. It’s loaded with lauric acid that has potent antimicrobial actions. The fats will also help condition the wood.