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?