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Contaminated 'feather meal' may be the next pink slime

The Agriculture Department submitted a proposal to increase the speed of poultry processing and to pull government inspectors from the assembly line. Here's why this may not be a good idea.

The media firestorm surrounding the pink slime debacle may have illuminated other unsavory practices in the meat industry: poultry farming. Researchers from the John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future tested 12 feather meal samples (more on this later) from poultry farms in six U.S. states and China. All samples had either pharmaceuticals or personal care products in them—the most disturbing substance found in eight samples were fluroquinolones.

Banned in U.S. poultry production in 2005 by the FDA, these broad-spectrum antibiotics are often prescribed to people when normal medicines aren’t powerful enough. But after bacteria began to develop resistance to fluroquinolones, they were discontinued in poultry farming. So why is the substance still showing up in chickens?

Project director and lead author of the report David Love, PhD, CLF said in a statement, “The discovery of certain antibiotics in feather meal strongly suggests the continued use of these drugs, despite the ban put in place in 2005 by the FDA.”

What does it matter if only the feathers of chickens contain these substances? That goes back to the feather meal. According to the study, “Following poultry slaughter, feathers are converted by rendering into feather meal and sold as fertilizer and animal feed.”

Feather as fertilizer

Feather meal as fertilizer is actually pretty smart. Not only does it have fairly high nitrogen levels, but also using it prevents a huge byproduct from ending up in landfills. According to material from Colorado State University’s Gardener Program, feather meal is a good option for long-term soil health.

It’s the use of feather meal as an additive in swine, cattle, fish, and even chicken feed (I know, it flirts with cannibalism) that summons my gag reflex. Because banned medicines have potential to accumulate in chicken's feathers, harmful contaminants may be working their way into other areas of our food supply.

This research comes in the wake of the Agriculture Department’s proposal to not only increase the amount of chickens processed each minute (from 140 birds to 200 birds), but also to pull state inspectors from the assembly line. Rather, the factory farm would be responsible to observe and remove birds unfit for consumption. It’s no question that without incentive, self-monitoring is a poor and ineffective method of food safety.

The question then arises: If some poultry farms are continuing to use fluroquinolones despite the years-old ban, is it really a good idea to further deregulate the industry?

Discuss this Blog Entry 5

Liz (not verified)
on Apr 12, 2012

My SIL has a friend who raises chickens for Tysons. This friend has stated to her in the recent past that she "has to go give her chicks their antibiotics and steroids." And she has said she does this daily.

The packages and regulators say one thing, the actual farmers on the street say another.

Jorge Casale (not verified)
on Apr 12, 2012

This is an interesting article, specially in relation to the continued use of banned chemicals and the food safety authorities leaning towards corporate self checking instead of official vigilance. But I fail to see the relation between these two subjects in the case of poultry feathers. Could anybody please explain?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 12, 2012

frankly I'm disturbed by any farming practice that basically cannablizes the animal...feeding feathers from one chicken to another as feed? Come one! Is our health really worth the bottom line for some huge corporation? Buy local, support your own health. Buy what you know is REAL food not modified by chemcial or some unnatural substance forced on the animal by big money.

on Apr 12, 2012

If feather meal is contaminated, won't putting it into the soil as fertilizer also be harmful and increase overall toxins in our food system?

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 13, 2012

This is crazy! I strongly encourage everyone to come back to reality... a few things to keep in mind (been in the poultry industry for more than 30 years):

a) No one feeds steroids to commercial poultry -- how do I know? Because there are none available -- feeding human grade hormones would be incredibly expensive and would not pay for itself.

b) Fluouroquinolone residue from feeding this medication would not be found in feathers. This family of medications is metabolized by the liver and kidneys. Cooking of feather meal will likely break it down even if it was possible to find residue in feathers. Unless the feather meal was adulterated after it was made, it is practically impossible for it to come from feeding to birds. In the USA, fluoroquinoles are no longer available economicaly.

c) Feeding feather meal to poultry is a reality. If that idea makes you gag, get over it. All birds are cannibalist by nature -- they will eat each other the minute they see blood. They have always eaten feathers in nature. It is protein conservation and recycling. Besides, feathers is not flesh. Are humans being cannibals when they accidently eat hair or skin? -- think about it when you eat your next meal prepared by human hands, which continously shed skin. Besides, what should the industry do with the thousands of tons of feathers produced every week? Store them? Burn them? Send them to the moon? Dump them in the ocean? I am sure the animal industry is open for suggestions....

As we complain about the food industry, please is not polite to speak with your mouth full....

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